Horns of the Bull:
Shaka also perfected the Zulu tactic known as Impondo Zankhomo, the Horns of the Bull, in which flankers in a Zulu attack formation (the horns) would encircle an enemy and leave it without means of escape. The main line of Zulus (the chest) would then engage with their Ikwas and attack shields and (usually) slaughter them to the last man. The horns were typically made up of the youngest regiments present, while the chest consisted of the most experienced regiments present. Shaka Zulu was noted for his brutal treatment of enemies, and of allies and kinsmen who failed to meet his expectations. It led to his death, in fact: several of his lieutenants murdered him in a scene reminiscent of the death of Julius Caesar.
The Zulu people had been united and its warriors trained in the art of warfare by King Shaka, who died in 1828. Power passed to Shaka's brother, King Mpande. Mpande had two sons, Mbulazi and Cetshwayo. King Mpande favored Mbulazi, which seemed odd because Mbulazi was a bookish, intellectual type while Cetshwayo was drawn to the military life and studied the life and campaigns of King Shaka. Forces loyal to Cetshwayo attacked British traders in Zululand. King Mpande sent forces under Mbulazi to rein in Cetshwayo. Cetshwayo defeated Mbulazi in a bloody battle at Ndonakusuka. Cetshwayo then ordered the deaths of Mbulazi and five relatives who had supported him, along with thousands of others who had fought for Mbulazi. Thousands of corpses were thrown into the Tugela River, and washed up for weeks afterward at its mouth on the Indian Ocean.
Cetshwayo took over as ruler of Zululand, and proclaimed himself its king after the death of King Mpande in 1872. At this time tension was increasing between the Zulus and their neighbors to the north, the Boers. The Boers occupied the area known as the Transvaal. Boer settlers had been spilling out from the Transvaal and seizing land owned by the Zulu for their farms. A combination of Transvaal financial difficulties and Boer fear of Zulu retaliation led to the British annexation of the Transvaal. This placed a strain on the formerly amiable relations between the British and King Cetshwayo.
Boer settlers continued to pour into Zululand, and Cetshwayo at first looked to the British for help, but finally realized that the British were going to side with the Boers. Some British officials secretly hoped for war with the Zulus, reasoning that 1) victory would be a fairly simple, relatively bloodless affair and that 2) a quick British victory would both placate the Boers and demonstrate to them the military might of the new owners of the Transvaal.
A commission appointed to settle the disputed land claims in Zululand, however, came to the unexpected decision that Boer land claims generally were based on unsigned or forged documents, and that no formal cession of land had ever been made according to long-standing Zulu custom. The British officials who had hoped for war suppressed the commission findings while seeking a way to start a war that both Cetshwayo and officials in London didn't want.
Two minor incidents gave the warmongers their excuse, however- two adulterous wives of a minor Zulu chief were beaten to death in sight of British troops at Rorke's Drift, and a second Zulu chieftain made a raid on a Boer settler's cattle. Rumors planted in the press by the British that Cetshwayo had 50,000 warriors poised to invade Natal didn't help. A demand was made that Cetshwayo drastically reduce the size and composition of his army, surrender the offending chieftains to the British, and submit every dispute between Zulus and Boers or British settlers to a British official. On his refusal, the British invasion of Zululand began.
The British Army
The British Army in 1878-1879 had neither the prestige nor the political clout of the Royal Navy. Conditions for enlisted men were abysmal, and the pay exceedingly low. Since there was no conscription at that time, enlisted recruits generally were men who had few other options. Men enlisted for six years, with an additional six-year reserve commitment. British regiments consisted (on paper at least) of two battalions- one at a home depot in Great Britain, while its partner battalion was deployed overseas. The army in 1878, however, was small enough that in some instances both battalions of a regiment were in fact overseas- both the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 24th Regiment of Foot were deployed in the Zululand Campaign.
British troops were supplemented with Natal volunteer units and the Natal Native Contingent, which was formed with native levies. Chelmsford had eight Natal volunteer units, and seven Natal Native Contingent battalions at his disposal, and also had 1,200 men of the volunteer Frontier Light Horse available. The problem with his Natal volunteer and Native Contingent units, of course, was that they had neither the training nor the discipline of his British regulars.
The British Army employed the Martini-Henry .45 caliber single-shot, breech-loading, lever-action rifle. It was a reliable and accurate weapon, capable in the hands of an expert marksman of downing a target at 1,000 yards, and rear-sighted for a firing distance of 400 yards. Its muzzle velocity was 375 yards, or 1/5 of a mile, per second. It fired a soft lead bullet that flattened on impact, wreaking havoc on bones and soft tissue. The Martini-Henry rifle was used in combination with a 21 ½ inch bayonet known as a "lunger."
British Strategy and Tactics
Lord Chelmsford, senior commander of British forces in Zululand, elected to divide his forces and ordered them to advance and then converge on Cethswayo's main homestead. During the advance, they were to destroy as many Zulu amakhanda as possible, thus limiting the capacity of the Zulu to carry on a military campaign of any length. Chelmsford hoped to provoke an attack on open level ground, where it was assumed that British military discipline and firepower would more than compensate for British inferiority in numbers. Chelmsford had 16,000 men, including a not-so-reliable as he might have hoped for native contingent, while Cethswayo had at least 40,000 men at his disposal, including several regiments of older men that would be used strictly for homeland defense. Cethswayo, like Chelmsford, hoped for a decisive battle on open level ground, where he thought Zulu superior numbers and Shaka's Horns of the Bull tactics could inflict a telling defeat on the British. He specifically cautioned his war chiefs, however, against attacking entrenched British troops, for Cethswayo thought that taking such a position, while possible, would prove too costly for the Zulu.
Chelmsford's main columns crossed into Zululand at Rorke's Drift, while a much smaller unit under Colonel Charles Pearson crossed into Zululand at the Lower Drift near the mouth of the Tugela River. Some British regulars were left behind in Natal, partly to guard against Zulu incursions, and partly to keep an eye on the Boers. British intentions were painfully obvious to the Boers, many of whom then refused to take any part in the British invasion of Zululand.
British supplies had to transported by oxen that could only move eleven miles per day on good roads in good weather conditions. Chelmsford had no system of supply depots, so each of his columns was obliged to carry all its own food and equipment, and to supply a guard for its supply train from its own limited supply of men.