SOME TACTICAL NOTES ON THE BRITISH ARMY, 1837-1901

With Particular Reference to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

BY TED BROWN

 

When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the British Amy was little changed from that which drove the French from the Peninsula and defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, at least so runs the popular idea.

In fact there had been changes, many of them for the worse. For example commanders and staffs had nothing like the experience in operations with large numbers of troops, supply and transport departments...painfully built up in the early years of the Nineteenth century, only to whither away. Uniforms had become tighter and far less practical than in 1815. Weapons, equipment and tactics had seen only the most minor changes. With no major European war in prospect and with the night of the Royal Navy as a sure shield to the homeland, the British Army was allowed to fall into a sorry condition.

The first small note of change was sounded in 1839 with the adoption of the percussion musket, giving the soldier far fewer misfires and slight increases in accuracy and rate of fire. From these small beginnings, Victoria's Army was to be in a constant state of change....in weapons, equipment, tactics, terms of service, enemies to be faced, and terrain to be fought over. In every field and in a degree unknown to earlier soldiers, the Soldiers of the Queen served in an army in a state of flux.

Up until the introduction of the Minie muzzle loading rifle in 1853, close order tactics and the two-deep line held sway (except when skirmishing) because that was the most efficient way to use smoothbore muzzle loading small arms. The Crimean War of 1854-56 and, to a lesser extent, the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, came too soon after the introduction of the Minie and Enfield rifles for major changes in tactics to result. In any case, the two-deep line of the British remained as superior to Russian columns as it had to French columns 40 years earlier.

In the late 1850's and first half of the 1860's, the British army fought in China, Japan (if the Royal Marines will pardon my lumping them with the army), New Zealand and on the North West Frontier of India. The soldiers found themselves facing enemies whom in the main relied on fire rather than shock effect, but who tended to be less well armed than the troops.

These mainly small scale actions showed the value of open and extended order. They made plain the fact that firepower is what wins fights, if allied to discipline and courage. Many officers took these lessons to heart and on the battlefields of the Empire less was seen of close order tactics.

The adoption after 1865 of the Snider breech-loading conversion of the Enfield gave the soldiers even more firepower. Then, in 1868, the British came up against a new type of enemy, one they would face again and again in the late 1870 s, 80 s and 90's. During the Abyssinian campaign at the battle of Arogee, the Abyssinian warriors relied mainly on a "mass charge" to try and overwhelm the troops. British infantry in open order smashed them with volleys of Snider-Enfield fire. In 1871 the troops were given an even better rifle, the famous Martini-Henry. A new volume of FIELD EXERCISES AND EVOLUTIONS OF INFANTRY was published in 1877, superceding that of 1870 and laying much greater stress on the use of open orders for infantry armed with the new rifles.

Between 1868 and 1879 the British soldiers saw action in Canada, Lushai, Ashanti, Malaya, South Africa and the North West Frontier of India before war began in Zululand.

In the Zulus the British would again face a "mass charge" enemy and, unlike the battle of Arogee, they would not be fighting on a plateau with steep cliffs to protect the flanks. Also, instead of 5-6,000 warriors, they would face more than 20,000 in some actions. The Zulus were one people the British had not fought before and many officers must have expected the fighting to be much like that in the recent Cape Frontier War; large-scale skirmishing with badly armed Africans of indifferent morale that superior firepower and the new open order tactics soon put to flight.

The British Army Lord Chelmsford took into Zululand in January of 1879 was in the midst of great changes. Short service in the ranks, the abolition of purchase for officers, more practical (if still colorful) uniforms, rationalized equipment, new weapons, education for soldiers, linked battalions and new tactics had all come in the last few years. Far from being the old fashioned force sometimes portrayed, the British Army was as up to date, and in some respects more so, than the armies of France, Prussia, Russia and the United States.

Yet at Isandhlwana, the British suffered the greatest defeat in their history against a native enemy. Why? It is my belief that the causes can be found not in the now largely disproved theory of lack of ammunition, but in the new tactics that did not allow for an enemy of the "mass charge" type.

I can find no example of a British multi-unit brigade or divisional square formation between the introduction of breech-loading small arms and the battle of Ulundi in July 1879. The British fought the battle of Isandhlwana in extended formation not just because of lack of knowledge as to the number of Zulus attacking them, but because extended formations had become the normal way of fighting. I would argue that it was the bitter lesson of Isandhlwana that led Chelmsford to adopt the multi-unit square at Ulundi. In turn when the British next came up against a "mass charge" enemy in the shape of the Dervish Ansar of the Sudan, it was natural for the British officers (some of whom had fought at Ulundi) to adopt the square as a formation. Thus the famous "British Square" was born of the defeat at Isandhlwana.

Far from retaining old-fashioned formations, the British had been forced to adapt the old anti-cavalry square to meet new tactical requirements after the new tactics of European warfare were found to be inadequate.

Turning to the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 it is often said that the British came into this campaign wedded to outmoded tactics. However, when one looks at this claim, it can be shown as less than the whole truth.

While it is true that a few British commanders preferred to operate in close order for as long as possible, others such as Methuen and Ian Hamilton adopted extended order right from the start of the war. It is sometimes said that the British had "only just" ceased to wear red coats, yet the last time red was worn in action was 1885, at Ginnis on the Egypt-Sudan border. Khaki type clothing had been in increasing use since the late 1840's. This compares well with the French who were still fighting in blue and red in 1914.

Such outmoded tactics as the British troops did use tended to be common to all major armies, indeed at Mons in 1914 German infantry advanced in close formations that few British commanders would have used in 1899! Criticism of British Staff work is on more solid ground and a proper Staff was only set-up after 1902.

On the whole, the weaknesses of the British Army in 1899 were those of all major world armies and one must doubt if the French, Germans, Americans or Russians would have done any better against such a skillful and mobile enemy as the Boers?

What is clear is that the British Army came out of the Victorian Era better trained and equipped than any other in the world. Few can doubt that the B.E.F. of 1914 was the best army in the world at that time. Sadly, there was just too little of it.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bancroft, J.W., RORKE'S DRIFT, Turnbridge Wells, 1988.

Barthorp, M., THE ZULU WAR, Poole, 1980.

Beckett, I.F.W., VICTORIA'S WARS, Aylesbury, 1974.

Bond, B. (Ed), VICTORIAN MILITARY CAMPAIGNS, London, 1967.

Chappell, M., BRITISH INFANTRY EQUIPMENT 1808-1908, London, 1980.

Child, D. (Ed), ZULU WAR JOURNAL OF COLONEL H. HARFORD, Pietermaritzburg, 1978.

Duminy, A., and Ballard, C. (Eds), THE ANGLO-ZULU WAR, Pietermaritzburg, 1981.

Edgerton, R. B., LIKE LIONS THEY FOUGHT, London, 1988

Featherstone, D., WEAPONS AND EQUIPMENT OF THE VICTORIAN SOLDIER, Poole, 1978.

Grierson, J.M., SCARLET INTO KHAKI, London, 1988.

Howard, M., THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR, London, 1961.

Keown-Boyd, H., A G00D DUSTING, London, 1986.

Knight, I.J. (Ed), THERE WILL BE AN AWFUL ROW AT HOME ABOUT THIS, London, 1987.

Knight, I.J., THE ZULUS, London, 1989.

Laband, J., THE BATTLE OF ULUNDI, Pietermaritzburg, 1988.

Laband, J., FIGHT US IN THE OPEN, Pietermaritzburg, 1985.

Laband, J., and Thompson, P., THE BUFFALO BORDER, Pietermaritzburg, 1983.

Laband, J., and Thompson, P., FIELD GUIDE TO THE WAR IN ZULULAND,

Pietermaritzburg, 1983.

McBride, A., THE ZULU WAR, London, 1976.

Pakenham, T., THE BOER WAR, London, 1979.

Pemberton, W.B., BATTLES OF THE BOER WAR, London, 1964.

Skelley, A.R., THE VICTORIAN ARMY AT HOME, London, 1977.

Strachan, H., WELLINGTON'S LEGACY: THE REFORM OF THE BRITISH ARMY, 1830-54, Manchester, 1984.

Whitehouse, H., BATTLE IN AFRICA 1879-1914, Mansfield, 1987

Finally anyone interested in this subject must read:

Callwell, C.E., SMALL WARS, THEIR PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE, London, 1896 and 1906.