Useful Notes: Anglo-Zulu War

The Battle of Rorke's Drift

"War against Zulus. Cause: The Zulus. Zulus exterminated. Peace with Zulus."
W. C. Sellar & R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That

The Anglo-Zulu War (1879) was a series of conflicts fought between the British Empire and the Zulu Empire all between January and July 1879. The war was instigated due to tensions between the Zulu leader Cetshwayo, and the Boers in the Transvaal region. The British chose to intervene due to a pre-existing desire to war against the Zulu because of land disputes. In 1879 a British force invaded Zululand aiming to capture the capital of Ulundi.

In response a Zulu force of 40,000, armed mostly with assegais, was mobilized against the British expeditionary force of 15,000 (split up into three 5,000 man columns), with 15,000 Zulus engaging approximately 1700 British and Native soldiers (the majority of the column had gone off with Lord Chelmsford to establish the next campsite), while a further 4000/5000 cut off the retreat and acted as reserve. Of the British force, 55 men survived. Underestimating Zulu numbers and capabilities met with bad leadership as the British lost the initial Battle of Isandlwana. Immediately after this, 139 British soldiers managed to hold off the 4500 (estimates vary) Zulus who had made up the reserve at Isandlwana and were looking for a fight, attacking their garrison for over twelve hours arrived at the Battle of Rorke's Drift, which resulted in eleven Victoria Crosses being awarded, a record for a single action unsurpassed to this date.

The British would also lose another decisive conflict during Siege of Eshowe, and a major contingent of their forces decided to make a Tactical Withdrawal following news of the defeat at Isandlwana. This left only a single small British force in Zululand, unable to advance alone.

With the British invasion force crippled, Cetshwayo was left in an odd position. He hadn't anticipated such a decisive victory over the invaders, albeit at distressingly heavy losses (he said, on receiving news of the victory, "An assegai has been thrust into the belly of my nation), and hadn't planned to follow them into neighbouring Natal. Indeed, he wanted peace and had specifically ordered his men not to invade Natal. With the exception of those at Rorke's Drift, which is considered a national embarrassment by the Zulus not for the loss, but for the fact that they disobeyed their King's orders, they obeyed.

So the Zulus remained in their own country as the British retreated and regrouped. The British eventually launched a second invasion but suffered a debilitating defeat at the Battle of Intombe, where a supply convoy was ransacked by the Zulu and only 40 British managed to escape.

The British would face defeat again at the Battle of Hlobane. Shortly after, a scouting mission went disastrously wrong when a scout group, including the exiled heir to the French throne, the Prince Imperial, Eugene Napoleon, who had volunteered for service (he was, it should be noted, a fully trained officer cadet), was jumped by a party of Zulus. before finally meeting with some success in winning the three subsequent battles the Battle of Kambula, the Battle of Gingindlovu and the Battle of Eshowe.

Finally, however, they found some success in their advances, the British found themselves in more or less the same position they had been in January. Quickly moving forward in an attack on the capital, Cetshwayo attempted to establish a treaty but was refused peace talks by the British. The resulting Battle of Ulundi, in the Valley of the Kings, the British made better tactical arrangements (they essentially set up in a gigantic square, sidled across the plain, found a suitable place to stop, then essentially waited for the Zulus to attack) and more suitable weapons like Gatling Guns, was the deathblow of the Zulu Empire. The battle lasted for approximately thirty minutes. Then the British unleashed their cavalry. Predictably, the cavalry had a field day.

In the aftermath of the British victory at the Zulu capital, the remnant of the Zulu army dispersed and Cetshwayo went into hiding, though he was later captured and disposed of his monarchy. Zululand was then divided into 13 territories by the British, and after imprisonment in the Cape, then travelling to England, Cetshwayo, famed for his quiet nobility, who had impressed Queen Victoria and become, peculiarly, something of a darling to the British public, who got the dim impression that he might just have been the victim, was awarded the monarchy of one of the 13 statelets. He would die in 1884, probably poisoned, after being attacked, during the resulting Civil War.

Today what was Zululand is a portion of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal, one of South Africa's nine provinces. In North America today it is probably best known as the place where Mike Rowe got attacked by a monkey.

In media

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Zulu, a 1964 about Rorke's Drift and starring Michael Caine. It's got a fair few inaccuracies and anyone with a knowledge of film goofs will tell you about the wristwatches (which was how the extras were paid) and trainers, but it remains a classic. 1979's Zulu Dawn covered Isandhlwana and is, by common consensus, much better history and a much worse film. Many later works about situations like Rorke's Drift reference this in some way.
  • Monty Python's The Meaning of Life has a sketch set on Natal right in the middle of a battle. However, the officers get sidetracked by a leg-stealing tiger.

  • Tanya Huff mentioned in the afterword to Valor's Choice that the book's major battle was a Fantasy Conflict Counterpart for Rorke's drift, with Silsviss adolescents playing the Zulus and an ostensibly diplomatic contingent of Confederation Marines playing the redcoats.
  • Flashman and the Tiger features the title character surviving both Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift.

    Tabletop Games 

Tropes Associated with the Anglo-Zulu War

  • Badass Army: Both the British and Zulu armies. The Natal Native Contingent, not so much, though that was largely down to a lack of training.
  • Badass Boast: One of the veteran Zulu Impis was called the inGobamakhosi, the 'Humblers of the Kings' or the 'Benders of the Kings'.
  • Badass Grandpa: The Zulu commander, Tshingwayo. In his seventies, and he still ran about sixty miles with his troops to get to the battle. Oh, and he played Chelmsford (who, for all his arrogance, was actually a more than competent General) and sent him wandering off in completely the wrong direction, before crushing the British at Isandlwana.
  • Father to His Men: Colonel Durnford to his Basuto horsemen. They called him 'baba', father, and loved him to bits.
    • Chelmsford, to an extent. After returning to Isandlwana in the evening, he reportedly wept at the sight, and ordered his troops to march out before dawn so they wouldn't have to see what they had been sleeping among.
  • General Failure: The British defeat at Isandlwana would have been less likely had not Chelmsford's bigoted arrogance led him to completely underestimate the military might of the Zulu.
  • The Good King: Cetshwayo. While there may be some Moral Dissonance in regards to some aspects of Zulu law, he maintained good relations with the British, was extremely patient with the carping from Pietermaritzburg (the capital of Natal), which was designed to annoy him and cause a breakdown in relations, thus justifying an invasion, and as he pointed out, no British person had been harmed in Zululand while he was King.
    • He also led an Impi (Zulu regiment), unarmed, to the site of the Battle of Blood River, on the anniversary, knowing that the Boers would be there to commemorate it, in reconciliation. The guy was Mandela before Mandela.
    • He used every means he could to try and avert war with the British.
    • Even his enemies noticed. See his mention under Worthy Opponent.
  • Last Stand: Many at Isandlwana, and all of them badass.
    • Also Rorke's Drift, a last stand with the vastly outnumbered British defenders being the victors.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Dabulamanzi kaMpande disobeyed Cesthawayo's orders not to invade Natal and attacked Rorke's Drift, expecting an easy victory. This didn't end well.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Zulus had and still have this.
  • Underestimating Badassery: Part of the reason that the British Army had such a tough time at the beginning is that their commanders completely underestimated the Zulus: a large and practiced fighting force with a well defined, simple and effective tactical doctrine that can only be stopped by the British with sufficient concentrated firepower using defences arranged with some competence.
  • What a Senseless Waste of Human Life: the overriding impression most get of this thoroughly pointless war which left death, misery and a blockbuster Hollywood film behind it.
  • What Could Have Been: The British actually very nearly won, with the right wing, the 'right horn of the Buffalo', being stalemated by British rifle fire and the Zulus were starting to run. Then their commander stood up and told them, 'the King did not order you to run'. He was promptly killed, but the Zulus didn't retreat one inch after that. If he hadn't stood up, the battle could have gone very differently...
    • Also, who knows what would have happened if the whole stupid thing hadn't happened in the first place.
  • Worthy Opponent: There was a lot of this going on after Isandlwana. The Zulus respected the British for their martial ability and insane courage with such martial discipline to stand their ground like stones (one Zulu warrior said, when interviewed, in admiring tones, "Ah, those British, they fought like lions.") and the British respected the Zulus for much the same reason. They were one of very few forces in history ever to march straight through British volley fire, which even Napoleon's Imperial Guard failed to do - and bear in mind, the Imperial Guard were facing muskets, with shorter range and a far slower rate of fire than the Martini-Henry rifle. Even at Ulundi, under cannon and machine gun fire to boot, they still got within thirty yards of the British position.
    • They also admire to this day the conduct of the British towards the captured Cetshwayo - to wit, they escorted him with honour and saluted him with the honours due to a King.
      • One of the Dragoons sent to capture him made to arrest him after he'd surrendered. Cetshwayo simply turned to him and said, "Hey you British soldier. I have surrendered to your commanding officer. Not to you." The Dragoon backed off.
    • The reason for the above was that the British admired Cetshwayo.
    • Colonel Durnford was regarded as a White Zulu by the Zulus, and, when they found his body in the middle of the pitched battle, they took the time to give him a funeral with full military honours, as would befit a Zulu inDuna, a chief.
    • When a British company on the hill of Islandlwana was trapped and about to make its Last Stand, the Zulu commanders held their troops back in order to allow the British Captain to shake his soldier's hands.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Zulu soldiers, when they got into the baggage park, did as most armies do after a siege/battle. They went crazy. This included dragging the drummer boys out from under the carts, where they were hiding, and sticking them on meat hooks, where their bodies were found by Chelmsford and his men. Unsurprisingly, the British stopped taking drummer boys into battle after this.

Alternative Title(s):

Anglo Zulu War