Myths Regarding The Battle of Islawandha

by Daniel Russ on November 9, 2011

 

Isandhlwana

Isandhlwana

I was perusing a website called Paradox Plaza. I picked up this opinion by a man named Didz, a Second Lieutenant veteran, I am assuming, in the Royal Army.  He writes a lengthy revision of history in regards to the Battle of Islawandha the first of several major engagements during the Zulu Wars that stretched from January 21st 1979 to July 4th, 1879.

 

Here is his comment and following this is my response.

 

 

 

 

 

There are several myths about this battle which have recently been exposed, but the most common one is that the reason the British lost and were wiped out was because the quarter-masters responsible for issuing ammunition refused to do so without the required chits signed by senior officers and so the troops ran out of ammunition.

A slight variation on this story was that the quartermasters issued the ammunition but nobody had the required screw-driver to open the boxes.

Both these myths have since been exposed as inventions of the imagination created to explain the inexplicable without actually placing the blame on anyone important.

In fact, battlefield archeologists have conducted a thorough survey of the Isawanda battlefield and discovered a far more plausible explanation based upon the distribution of cartridges and other battlefield debris.

It appears that contrary to the official version of events, the British did not form up in a dense battle line just beyond their camp to recieve the Zulu attack, nor did they form gallant squares and fight to the last man as their ammunition ran out. Though this obvious would be what the gold briad at Horse Guards wanted to believe, and so they assumed that this must have been what happened.

However, based upon the distribution of cartridge cases and other battlefield debris across the battlefield it seems that rather than forming a battle line close to the camp the British troops were ordered to advance in skirmish order towards the Zulu army. This was actually hidden beyond a ridge, and the theory is that the intention was to advance up to the ridge line and use it as an initial firing position from which to reduce the strength of the approaching Impii’s.

Whatever the intention, the plan went horribly wrong as it appears the Zulu’s reached the crest of the ridge just as the British skirmish line was climbing the last few yards before the summit. The first British cartridge cases were found scattered across the front face of the ridge not in dense lines but in dispersed patterns.

It appears that panic immediately set in, as the Zulu’s hurtled over the crest and down the slope towards the scattered British troops. Almost immediately the archeologists began to find evidence of discarded equipment. Haversack buckles, rifle mechanisms (some clearly jammed), cap badges were found all the way from the ridge back to the main camp site. Suggesting that the British fell back rapidly in some disorder, and just kept going. There were occassional dense concentrations of cartidges, equipment and uniform remants in dips and wadi’s suggesting that some groups of men had turned at bay and tried to hold positions before being overrun, but the vast majority of the men seem to have started running and never stopped, and cartidge cases were scattered in a wide and dispersed pattern right through the camp and for a mile beyond it as the last survivors were chased and harried to extinction.

At not point was there any evidence of a formed battle line or a gallant square, the last debris found was a few pitiful scaps of uniform and buckles scattered in a dry stream bed over a mile from the battlefield site, where presumbly the last survivors, out of ammunition and too tired to run farther were caught and slaughtered.

P.s. I almost forgot…the reason most of the ammunition boxes were found intact in the camp, giving rise to the myth, is not that nobody had the right paperwork, or a scewdriver (in fact it was shown that one hefty slap with a rifle butt opened an ammo box easily anyway, but simply that they were running for their lives with a bunch of screaming Zulu’s on their tails and hadn’t got the time or inclination to stop and draw fresh ammunition.

 

 

Zulu Warriors

 

Islawanda might indeed have been a chaotic mess, but this scenario doesn’t work for one reason. If the beginning of the fight consisted of a line advancing that deteriorated into a route, then the battle wouldn’t have lasted eight hours. It would have lasted about an hour or more. The fact is the Zulus were driven off and had to regroup and charge time and again.

It is possible that somehow the ammunition was spread immediately after the fighting by looting Zulus? is it possible that weather, like rain and erosion moved the ammunition?

 

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Norman Chang May 27, 2012 at 3:53 am

You have the illustration of Rorke’s Drift at the head of your website, thought you ought to know, rather than Islawandha.

Born Merthyr Tydfil South Wales so I was taught it incessantly whilst at school.

Daniel Russ May 29, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Fixed

God Save The Queen

Nathan Stirling July 3, 2012 at 6:56 am

Also from the books I’ve read on this battle there were no large amounts of ammo left on wargons as the Imps took it away with them, along with the cannons as instructed to by Cetshwayo.

Charles Russell September 5, 2012 at 8:26 am

Myths aside the only way for 850 British soldiers to defeat 20,000 Zulus would be for each soldier to have been armed with a machine gun and at least 40,000 rounds of ammunition, preferably firing from inside concrete pill boxes. Interestingly cavalry horses always refused to charge into infantry squares, they obviously knew the difference between courage and stupidity, that may be why it’s called horse sense.

mike January 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm

The other problem for the army was that it had experience of fighting xhosa who were skilled skirmishers aginst whom a square was just a big target. The army seems to have begun the battle in extended order being pushed back into camp. The army failed to from square fast enough and they got beaten back, in defensive lagger they could have held out as some of the survivors of the initial defeat tried. If they had fortified and held on they would probably have succeded as at boood river and rorkes drift later. in extended order they lost too many men in the initial engagement to be able to hold the unfortified camp.

Daniel Russ January 30, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Agreed

Good comments.

Are you South African? Brit? Just curious?

Steve June 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm

1st the painting is a famous one of Islawandha not rorkes drift.

2nd
No professional have said the British ran
They tell you they were over run by a professional well trained army and that the Brtitsh did not respect native troops.
This is like the myth that the 24th foot was a welsh regiment when it wasn’t.

So you all know I am. British and proud of it.

Daniel Russ June 22, 2013 at 9:14 am

Thanks for the visit. I will correct this soon.

reg gartland July 31, 2013 at 2:06 am

I have owned and used a Martini Henry rifle Mk2. Even having to fire left handed, as I have poor sight in my right eye, I could fire: 12 rounds per min accurately & easily, of course we were using modern brass casings which were far superior to the thin copper casings of the time, But even allowing for fouling and some hangups 800 British troops could easily discharge 9600 rds per minute at the enemy, at least before the fouling began; which would lead to the poor copper cases sticking in fouled chambers. But proper controlled withdrawals from the line would solve these problems. IF the problem actually existed, after all the troops at Rorke’s Drift fired the same weapons without all of the derogatory complaints. But lets allow for the hang ups and fouling, and say Half the actual rate of fire 4800 rpm or 288000 RPHour. That’s more than ten rounds to bring down one Zulu!!!
No the only reasonable answer was that poor officers commanding troops who did not trust their officers tactics. And who could blame them

Louis September 6, 2017 at 2:49 pm

At the top you mention that the gentleman would have served in the Royal Army. If you mean the British Army, that would be highly unlikely. Although there is a RAF and a RN, there never was a Royal Army. It is just the British Army. However, quite a few regiments have the Royal honorific, like the Royal Horse Artillery, and the Royal Regiment of Scotland for instance.

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