Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A Zulu Battle

On 21st January 1879, colonial horse and Natal Native infantry of No. 3 Column conducted a reconaissance of the Mangeni Gorge. In the late afternoon, a strong force of Zulus was discovered in the broken ground at the head of the gorge, near the Mdutshana hill. Major Dartnell,. commanding the volunteers, decided to remain close to the enemy overnight, calling on Lord Chelmsford's main force for help.

When the news reached him shortly after midnight, Lord Chelmsford ordered out the second battalion, 24th Regiment, 4 guns and the imperial mounted infantry (men recruited from the regular infantry regiments in Natal) to reinforce Dartnell and attack the Zulus. On the 22nd, Chelmsford thus found half his No. 3 Column, with himself at the head, skirmishing against a handful of scattered Zulu irregulars whilst the main Impi attacked at Isandlwana. The 'strong' force at the Mangeni thus turned out to be nothing of the kind, but Dave and I 'refought' the battle that Chelmsford expected to fight on the 22nd against a body of several thousand Zulus. I knew the rules better so gave him the choice of sides and, after consulting the dice, he opted to be Zulu.

The British deployment zone had a solitary conical hill (Mdutshana) in it, the Zulu deployment zone contained rising ground and scattered forest representing the edges of the Magogo mountain. Between the two was an expanse of flat ground where the real Chelmsford intended to establish his camp when he advanced from Isandlwana, and our wargames Chelmsford aimed to use as his killing ground if he could tempt the Zulus to advance into it. The British deployed with their battalion of NNC in two wings on Mdutshana, their guns in the centre of the line and the 24th massed on the right. The Imperial mounted infantry took the extreme right flank and the colonial volunteers the left. The Zulus were mostly hidden.

The British advanced at their rather stately pace, half the NNC battalion remaining on the upper slopes of the Mdutshana, whilst the other half occupied a wood on its lower slopes. The mounted men on both flanks advanced to flush the Zulus out of hiding. After a while, the British artillery were able to open an effective fire (and the Imperial MI a wholly ineffective one) against the single group of Zulus exposed on the forward slope of the Magogo. The Zulus began to experience casualties, but the officer with the unit was able to prevent it advancing prematurely. The Imperial MI decided to dismount in order to make their fire a little more effective. On the British left, the mounted volunteers caught sight of some of the Zulu units waiting to advance, and the Zulus decided to wait no longer, flinging themselves forward against the mounted men on the flanks, and the infantry in the centre.

The British fire phase rapidly became quite extensive. Some of the volunteers had also dismounted, and dismounted carbine fire proved enough to wound, if not to stop, the Zulus. The two guns were fearsome, shattering the Zulu units they engaged. The 24th, too, caused heavy casualties even at long range with their Martini-Henries.

Soldiers of the Queen has an interesting charge sequence. First the defenders test to see at what range they fire - the range is determined by their quality, not the actual range on the ground for good troops will wait to see the whites of the eyes, whilst poor troops may be panicked into firing high. Then the attackers test to see if they retain the resolve to charge. Finally the defenders test morale to stand. The morale dice are used again to determine who wins the combat. Morale is all-important in winning combats and numbers count for rather little. Moreover an even contest can last for many turns before it finally ends, perhaps with few or no actual casualties inflicted. For this reason a few good troops can receive a charge from many times their number with confidence. A decent volley at close range can knock a fair bit of enthusiasm off the Zulus, resulting in a protracted melee with no clear winner from which the British are quite likely merely to fall back in good order. Thus when the Zulus charged the dismounted men, they stood to receive, pouring out well-directed volleys. The resulting melees both came out as narrow Zulu victories in which no real casualties were inflicted on either side, and the Zulu units looked set to be held up for several turns.

Meanwhile a traffic jam was developing in the Zulu centre where one of their units, punished by British artillery fire, had lost heart whilst still in the way of another. Zulus can freely interpenetrate, but the resulting disorder knocks a fair bit off their potential in close combat. The Zulus therefore chose not to do this, but to try to manoeuvre round each other whilst the Royal Artillery continued to give them everything. More Zulus came within charge range of the 24th. The Welshmen's fire proved too much for one of the units, but the other one's morale held and it went in. Although again the Zulus failed to achieve much in the combat, they had at least stopped the best British unit from firing. Now they had a real chance.

At this point things began to move very suddenly on the British left. Part of the volunteers had been locked (dismounted) in combat with a unit of Zulus on the extreme left, whilst more Zulus advanced on the NNC in the wood. Another party of volunteers had dismounted beside the NNC to strengthen their otherwise rather weak fire. Almost simultaneously the first unit of volunteers - not badly damaged but defeated in the melee - mounted up and retreated from the Zulus they were facing, whilst the second unit of Zulus charged against the NNC and volunteers on the edge of the wood. Here the Zulus rolled up on their morale dice and the Brits down, and neither the NNC nor the volunteers held their fire coolly. The resulting melee was not a long and finely-balanced one but a sharp, one-sided slaughter; and all at once the greater part of the British left was in flight pursued by a horde of whooping Zulus.


Looking across the field, though, it was clear that the Zulus had no units left to exploit this advantage, having been ground down by the fire particularly of the British artillery. We agreed to call the game a draw rather than fight to the bitter end. With all the casualties falling on colonial units, it was clear that the British could hardly consider themselves defeated.

Dave had suffered because he deployed all his Zulus into dense, phalanx-like units in more or less a single line. In the one place he did find himself with a reserve, he did not dare bring it through the front line for fear of the resulting disorder making it ineffective. In my view both the more effective and the more historical tactic is to deploy in multiple lines one behind another. The first line may be halted completely by British fire. The second, interpenetrating, will be disordered and will fight disadvantaged in melee, but it has a good chance of reaching melee and taking several turns to lose. That gives time for the third and fourth lines to advance, recover any disorder inflicted by the retiring remnants of the first line, and renew the fight with advantage. I, as the Brits, meanwhile, had trusted too much to terrain advantage to sustain my NNC against the Zulus. A classic wargamer mistake. I should have bolstered them with at least some of my redcoats to provide a little robustness against an unlucky dice roll.

Soldiers of the Queen are an ancient mid-80s era TTG set, with a different die used for every kind of test and individual figure removal; but they produce a good result which, if you understand the long 'melees' as periods of close fire combat and the short ones as the times when the Zulus genuinely reach hand-to-hand, seems historically accurate. I keep thinking I can write something better, but I never quite have... 

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