I recently rewatched Zulu Dawn, a movie I vividly remembered from my childhood — only it turns out I didn’t vividly remember anything before the climax, which depicts the Brits’ crushing defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana.
The British, as always, are depicted as bumbling, which, in this case, is pretty well justified. The British commander, Lord Chelmsford, refuses to circle the wagons — into a Boer-style laager — or to prepare entrenchments of any sort — when facing a potentially enormous army wielding spears and clubs, where a simple palisade could become a serious force-multiplier.
I’ve always heard the famed Zulu spear referred to as an assegai, by the way, but that’s not a Zulu term. Assegai is a Berber word for spear, which somehow became the English word for any African spear. Shaka’s innovative short-hafted spear with a sword-like blade, designed for close combat, was dubbed the iklwa — a grisly bit of onomatopoeia for the sound it made when pulled from a victim.
The film depicts the British soldiers running out of ammunition and has the old stickler of a quartermaster doling out boxes of ammo by the book, one at a time, to soldiers who have waited in a proper queue, which doesn’t seem to have happened in real life.
The Martini-Henry rifle the soldiers were using was a single-shot rifle. It was a breech-loader, but it wasn’t a magazine-rifle. In ideal conditions — at the range, with ammunition laid out ahead of time — a marksman might achieve 20 aimed rounds per minute at a target 200 yards away, but, in less than ideal conditions, soldiers were expected to shoot maybe five rounds per minute. The 1884 edition of the Field Exercise Manual, which came out after the Battle of Isandlwana, explains the prevailing philosophy:
In action Musketry Fire is the main element. It cannot be left to individual initiation without its degenerating into a useless expenditure of ammunition.
Experience in later wars bears out the widsom that most rifle fire is a useless expenditure of ammunition. In both World Wars, tens of thousands of rounds were fired per casualty inflicted. That’s why our modern troops shoot a glorified .22.
So, British tactical doctrine emphasized using a low rate of fire in order to produce a high rate of effective fire:
The optimum rates quoted in the manual were only desirable during the last stages of a determined attack, when it was necessary to break up a charge before it struck home. When firing at longer ranges, a slower rate of fire was distinctly preferable. At Gingindlovu — where the fire was less disciplined and therefore more rapid than at Isandlwana — Captain Hutton observed that ‘the average number of rounds fired per man was rather under seven; that of the marines next to me was sixteen’. In his autobiography, Evelyn Wood noted that at Khambula — a battle where the intensity of the Zulu attack arguably matched that at Isandlwana — ‘the Line Battalions were very steady, expending in four hours an average of 33 rounds per man’.(7) At Ulundi, the average was 10 rounds expended in half an hour. Colonel C.E. Callwell, in his wide-ranging review of colonial warfare first published in 1896, provides a number of examples of rates of fire with Martini-Henry rifles from outside the Zulu campaign. At the battle of Charasia, in the 2nd Afghan War, ‘the 72nd fired 30 rounds a man, being heavily engaged for some hours’.(8) At Ahmed Khel it was only 10 rounds per man, while at El Teb and Tamai in the Sudan — both battles in which the enemy launched extremely determined attacks — ‘the troops most committed fired about 50 rounds a man’. By contrast, French troops at the battle of Achupa in Dahomey fired about 80 rounds a man in two hours, using a magazine rifle with a much faster rate of fire — a statistic that Callwell considered ‘remarkable’.
These steady rates of fire were the product of the deliberate policy encouraged by official training manuals, where slow fire was regarded as effective fire. At Ulundi, the war correspondent Melton Prior noted with some disdain that Lord Chelmsford met a particularly determined Zulu attack with the order ‘Men, fire faster; can’t you fire faster?’ and contrasted this with Sir Garnet Wolseley’s maxim ‘fire slow, fire slow’.(9) The measured volleys of the 24th at Isandlwana can be compared favourably to the experience of Private Williams of the 1/24th, Col. Glyn’s groom. Williams was in the camp at Isandlwana as the Zulu attack developed, and together with several officers’ servants, began to fire from the edge of the tent area at the distant Zulus. This was independent fire, with no one to direct it, and Williams noted that ‘we fired 40 to 50 rounds each when the Native Contingent fell back on the camp and one of their officers pointed out to me that the enemy were entering the right of the camp. We then went to the right … and fired away the remainder of our ammunition’.(10) Note, however, that even under these conditions, Williams’ 70 rounds lasted him throughout most of the battle.
Before leaving the question of the effectiveness of Martini-Henry fire at Isandlwana, it is worth noting that Smith-Dorrien’s comment that the 24th were ‘making every round tell’ should be taken as a tribute to their reliability rather than at face value. This is particularly important, because an unrealistic assessment of the potential destructiveness of rifles on the battlefield can distort our reading of events. Clearly, if the 24th did indeed hit their targets with every shot, the 600-odd men of the 24th in the firing line would have killed the entire Zulu army in 34 volleys! In battles across history — the more so in recent times, with modern rapid-fire weapons — the ratio of shots to hits is always high. The level of accuracy expected on the firing range was not attainable in the field, where even the strongest nerves could be unsettled by the tension of battle, and where the enemy was not only a moving target, but firing back. At Isandlwana, the Zulu attack was carried out in open order, making good use of the ground, and the warriors only drew together during the final rush. When caught in the open, the 24th’s volleys were devastatingly effective, but the Zulus naturally sought to avoid this situation. It is no coincidence that the attack of the Zulu centre stalled when it reached the protection of the dongas at the foot of the iNyoni ridge. Having found cover under heavy fire at close range, the warriors found it difficult to regain the impetus of their attack, and mount an assault up an open slope into the teeth of the 24th’s fire.
It has been estimated that at long ranges (700–1400 yards) volley fire was no more than 2 % effective. At medium range (300–700 yards) it might rise to 5% effectiveness, and at close range (100–300 yards) 15% effectiveness.(11) Given the amount of smoke produced by close-range fighting in any battle, and the effects of adrenaline generated by the proximity of the enemy, even that figure might be optimistic. It’s interesting to note that at Gingindlovu, if Hutton’s estimate of the number of rounds fired by the 60th Rifles is correct, then 540 men fired over 5000 rounds; he noted afterwards the just 61 dead were found within 500 yards of their line, in the most destructive fire-zone. Although more undoubtedly fell at longer ranges, and an incalculable number were wounded — several times the number killed — this figure suggests a ratio of 80 shots to kill one Zulu. At Khambula, using Wood’s figure as a basis, some 1200 infantry fired nearly 40,000 rounds of ammunition, killing up to 2000 Zulus — a rather better ratio of 20:1, reflecting the greater experience of the battalions involved. In both cases, numbers of the enemy were killed by artillery fire, and many more in the pursuit, so the proportion of kills attributed to the infantry should be further adjusted downward. Taking the war as a whole, it probably took between 30 and 40 shots on average to kill one Zulu, although a number of those shots might have inflicted wounds and incapacitated the victims.
If only they had Garands…