The battle of Isandlwana represented a clash of two radically different military systems – a modern, Western, technologically-advanced professional army pitched against an indigenous African tribal army of part-time warriors armed primarily with shields and spears.
The British Army was in a state of flux in the 1870s, and many attitudes and practices which had survived since the days of the Napoleonic Wars, more than 60 years before, were gradually giving way to more progressive ideas. Although perhaps no longer ‘the scum of the earth’ of Wellington’s day, ordinary soldiers were still recruited from among the poorest levels of British society, and men signed on for a minimum of six years’ service, with a further six on the ‘active reserve’. The standard infantry tactical unit of the day was the infantry battalion – eight companies, nominally of 100 officers and men apiece, but often under-strength in field conditions.
Battalions constituted tightly-knit, family-like units, with common traditions and histories, despite the huge social gulf that separated the rank-and-file from from the officers who commanded them.
Both battalions of the 24th Regiment were attached to the Centre Column – which was unusual, since it was rare for two battalions of the same regiment to serve together. Five companies of the 1/24th and one company of the 2/24th were wiped out at Isandlwana, while Rorke’s Drift was defended by B Company of the 2/24th.
While troops serving in India were allowed to wear khaki uniforms, infantry battalions still fought in scarlet tunics elsewhere in the world, even in the summer heat in Zululand. They were armed with the single-shot breach-loading Martini-Henry rifle, which was considered one of the best military firearms of the day – it was robust, easy to use, and accurate, particularly under battlefield conditions at ranges of 300 yards or less. Changes in battlefield theory meant that in 1879 the British were beginning to experiment with more open and fluid tactics on the battlefield. Ironically, the dispersal of detachments over too wide an area was a major factor in the defeat at Isandlwana.
Pulleine’s forces were supported by two light 7-pdr muzzle-loading guns, while Durnford’s command included a battery of three rockets – gloriously Victorian contraptions which fired a 9-pdr shell, essentially a modified firework, from a collapsible metal frame.
Chelmsford had no regular cavalry troops available at the beginning of 1879, and instead persuaded the Natal authorities to allow him to deploy the small settler Volunteer units which the colony had raised for its own defence. Apart from the professional Natal Mounted Police, these were part-time militias who met once a year to train, who chose their own uniforms and elected their own officers, but who were armed and equipped by the Colony.
The movement was popular among the sons of the settler-gentry, and most could ride and shoot and understood the country and local conditions, but they lacked the experience of the regulars. 25 Policemen and 32 Volunteers from three different units were killed at Isandlwana.
To further make up his numbers, Chelmsford pressurised the Natal Government to raise an auxiliary force, the Natal Native Contingent, from among the Colony’s African population, many of whom were linked to the Zulu kingdom by past conflicts. Despite some reluctance on the part of the Colony to arms its majority population, three regiments of infantry and five smaller mounted units were raised.
They were not authorised until the end of 1878, however, and had only weeks to train for the war, and the infantry, in particular, suffered from a shortage of good European officers and NCOs. Only one man in ten was issued with a firearm – the rest 1carried traditional weapons and were distinguished from their Zulu enemies by little more than a red head-band and a rolled blanket.