The Zulu Army and Their Tactics at the Battle of Isandlwana | History Hit

The Zulu Army and Their Tactics at the Battle of Isandlwana

Adrian Greaves

27 Feb 2020

In January 1879, the British army in South Africa invaded Zululand, an independent and previously friendly country.

The British force was led by Lord Chelmsford, who anticipated an easy victory and national fame. He commanded some 4,700 highly-trained soldiers assisted by colonial volunteers, all equipped with the latest Martini-Henry rifles, all supported by field guns of the Royal Artillery.

Facing them on the vast baking hot plain at Isandlwana was the Zulu army of 35,000 spear wielding warriors, a few armed with an assortment of ancient and inaccurate muzzle-loading firearms acquired from unscrupulous traders.

When the Zulus first appeared in the distance, some 15 miles away, Chelmsford broke the first military rule in enemy territory. He divided his force to meet the Zulus, leaving over 1,500 behind in the main camp beneath Isandlwana hill.

It was this reserve force that the Zulus attacked, leaving Chelmsford’s force stranded miles away and unable to help.

Battle of Isandhlwana

‘Battle of Isandhlwana’ by Charles Edwin Fripp, 1885 (Credit: National Army Museum, South Africa).

As Chelmsford later remarked on viewing the body-strewn and shattered camp, “but I left a strong force here” – how was this possible?

Training and induction

By 1878, the part-time Zulu army was neither professional nor well trained.

Young Zulu warrior

Young Zulu warrior photographed in 1860 (Credit: Anthony Preston).

The only military training Zulu warriors received took place during their initial induction into their age-set regiment, a form of national service.

In all matters they relied on instructions from their indunas (officers) who, in turn, demanded absolute obedience from their warriors.

British intelligence led Chelmsford to believe that the total strength of the Zulu army amounted to between 40,000 and 50,000 men immediately available for action.

The total Zulu population in 1878 only amounted to some 350,000 people, so this figure is probably correct.

Army corps and regiments

Zulu warriors

‘Zulu Warriors’ by Charles Edwin Fripp, 1879 (Credit: Public domain).

The Zulu army was soundly structured and consisted of 12 such corps. These corps necessarily contained men of all ages, some being married, others unmarried, some being old men scarcely able to walk and others of boys.

By the time of the Zulu War, the total number of regiments in the Zulu army amounted to 34, of whom 18 were married and 16 unmarried.

7 of the former were composed of men over 60 years of age, so that for practical purposes there were only 27 Zulu regiments fit to take the field amounting to some 44,000 warriors.

Lawrence James is an English historian and writer. He has written several works of popular history about the British Empire. Lawrence's latest book is entitled Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa.
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Discipline and transport

Tactical drill was unknown to the Zulu army, although they could perform a number of essential movements based on large animal hunts with speed and accuracy.

Their skirmishing skills were extremely good, and warriors perform under heavy fire with the utmost determination.

Unlike the lumbering British invasion force, the Zulu army required but little commissariat or transport. Three or 4 days’ provisions consisting of maize or millet and a herd of beef cattle accompanied each regiment.

Military Map of Zulu Land

British Army’s military map of Zulu Land, 1879 (Credit: Intelligence Branch of the Quartermaster General’s Department of the British Army).

The company officers marched immediately in rear of their men, the second-in-command in rear of the left wing, and the commanding officer in rear of the right.

This tried and tested plan was now put into operation to defend Zululand from the British invasion force invading at three points along the Zululand border.

Pre-war ceremonies

Chelmsford’s planned invasion occured just as the Zulu regiments were assembling from across Zululand at Ulundi for the annual “first fruits” ceremonies.

On arriving at the king’s royal homestead, important pre-war ceremonies took place and various medicines and drugs were administered to the warriors to enhance their fighting capacity and to encourage their belief that these “powders” (cannabis and other narcotics) would render them immune from British firepower.

On the third day, the warriors were sprinkled with magical muti and commenced their march of some 70 miles towards the British border with Natal.

Battle tactics and spies


Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill flee the camp with the Queen’s Colour of the 1st battalion of the 24th Regiment (Credit: Stanford).

The battle tactic for engaging the British was proven, efficient, simple and understood by every Zulu warrior.

Military operations were controlled by senior Zulus, usually from a remote vantage point, although one of their number could be dispatched into the battle to rally or lead if an assault faltered, as happened at Isandlwana.

The Zulus made great use of spies; they had an elaborate system for obtaining and transmitting intelligence and were efficient at outpost duty. They already knew exactly where the British were and Zulu spies reported their every move back to the Zulu generals.

“The horns of the bull”

The actual Zulu battle formation resembled a crescent shape with two flanks moving to encircle the enemy.

The formation was  known by Europeans as the “horns of the bull”, and had been developed over hundreds of years when hunting large herds of game.

Lord Chelmsford

Lord Chelmsford, c. 1870 (Credit: Public domain).

The fast-moving encircling horns consisted of the younger fitter warriors, with the body or chest made up of the more seasoned warriors who would bear the brunt of a frontal attack.

The tactic was most successful when the two horns completed the encirclement of the enemy and relied, in part, on the main body of warriors remaining out of sight until the horns met. They would then rise up and close in to slaughter the victims.

A large body of troops were also kept in reserve; they were usually held, sitting with their backs to the enemy. The commanders and staff would assemble on high ground between the battle and their reserves, all orders being delivered by runners.

Each man usually carried 4 or 5 throwing spears. One short and heavy bladed spear was used solely for stabbing and was never parted with; the others were lighter, and sometimes thrown.

On the battlefield

 Battle of Isandlwana

‘Lts Melvill and Coghill attacked by Zulu warriors’ by Charles Edwin Fripp (Credit: Project Guttenberg).

At Isandlwana, Zulu commanders were successfully able to control an extended advance across a 5 to 6-mile front to the extent that they completely encircled not only the British position but also the hill of Isandlwana itself.

Popular myth records the Zulus moving into attack the British position at Isandlwana in mass formation. However, the reality was an attack in open skirmishing lines up to a quarter mile deep. Certainly, from a distance, such a large force carrying shields would have appeared very densely packed.

The Zulus advanced at a steady jogging speed and completed the final attack at a run, quickly overwhelming the British line. Once amongst their enemy, the short stabbing spear or assegai was most effective.

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The tactic succeeded brilliantly at Isandlwana. The battle raged for less than an hour, Chelmsford’s force of some 1,600 men were slaughtered; less than 100 managed to escape, probably before the Zulus attacked.

After the Zulu success at Isandlwana, Natal was utterly helpless to defend itself, the British invasion force was part-defeated and part-surrounded yet King Cetshwayo failed to capitalise on his victory.

Dr Adrian Greaves has lived in Zululand and has examined Zulu history over a period of some 30 years. The Tribe That Washed its Spears is his latest book on the subject, co-written with his Zulu friend Xolani Mkhize, and is published by Pen & Sword.

The Tribe That Washed Its Spears

Adrian Greaves