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The Ammunition Boxes at iSandlwana

The disastrous British defeat at iSandlwana is still sometimes attributed to a failure of ammunition on the part of the unit most involved in the defence - the 24th Regiment.

This is variously ascribed to the unwillingness of Quartermasters to issue rounds without due paperwork, to the difficulties of opening the ammunition boxes themselves - which were supposedly bound tight with copper bands - and even to a lack of screwdrivers with which to do so.

In fact, any careful analysis of the evidence doesn’t support any of these claims. While it is true that some of the Colonial units - those under the independent command of Col. Durnford - did run out of ammunition and have difficulty replenishing their supplies, there is no evidence whatever to suggest that shortage of ammunition influenced in any way the tactical decisions of the officers of the 24th Regiment, whose men constituted the main element in the British firing line.

There were huge quantities of rifle and carbine ammunition in the camp at iSandlwana - about 400,000 rounds in all. General Lord Chelmsford had taken the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment, out on reconnaissance, but left their reserve of ammunition in the camp, with orders that it be made ready to send to him if he requested it. The camp was guarded by the 1st Battalion, 24th, whose reserve supply was also in the camp. The ammunition itself was stored in the Mark V ammunition box, which was a stout wooden thing, lined with tin, and held together with two copper bands. Obviously, such boxes were designed to take rough treatment on campaign - no point in them bursting open every time they were dropped - but access to the rounds was via a sliding wooden panel in the centre of the box. This was held in place by just one screw, and in an emergency it could be opened by the highly unorthadox method of giving the edge of the panel a hefty clout. This had the effect of splintering the wood around the screw.

When the battle first began, one of the Staff Officers collected a number of men not engaged in the fighting, and set about ferrying ammunition out to the firing line - this was the standard procedure at the time. One rather over-enthusiastic young officer attempted to requisition the 2/24th’s supply, but was sent away with a flea in his ear by the quartermaster, who was quite rightly mindful of his responsibilities to Lord Chelmsford. At that stage, the camp was not in serious danger, and in fact fresh supplies were organised from the 1/24th’s reserve. Later, when things started going badly, the 2/24th’s supplies were also broached, so that when - at the climax of the battle - the 24th companies abandoned their forward positions and fell back on the tents, they were still firing heavily. The reports of survivors - including half a dozen Zulu eye-witnesses - were unanimous on this point. 

Once the Zulus penetrated the British line and over-ran the camp, however, there was no possibility of anyone renewing their supplies. The various groups of 24th - and others - therefore stood back to back and fired off what ammunition they had, after which the Zulu closed in. And therein lies the origin of all those reports which refer to the 24th being ’overwhelmed when their ammunition was expended’.

Of course, even now it is far easier to believe that a modern, Western, industrialised army could be defeated through some folly of its own, rather than that it could be out-generalled by a part-time civilian army armed primarily with spears - an army, moreover, consisting entirely of Africans.

But such a view is based on false assumptions of racial and technological superiority, and a misunderstanding of the tactical realities. In a funny way it slights the memory of the 24th - suggesting that, experienced battalions though they were, they had not managed to work out their own resupply, nor open their own ammunition boxes - and it is a view which denies the tactical skill, discipline, and sheer raw courage of the Zulu people. The battle of iSandlwana was more than just a British defeat - it was, after all, a Zulu victory..