Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Battle of Khambula

In two days time there is an anniversary of a battle fought in the Anglo Zulu War,. To honour those who fought on both sides the Shed re-fought this engagement on Monday night.

140 years ago the British Army was reeling from their disaster at Isandlwhana. An entire battalion of British Infantry along with hundreds of supporting troops had been wiped out, and despite the brave and resolute defence of Rourkes Drift the morale of the invading forces was at its lowest ebb. The Zulus, in contrast were in high spirits and many native regiments were still keen to ‘Wash their Spears’. Isandlwhana proved that a numerically stronger native force could sieze victory against a complacent modern European army. Indeed Cetshewayo, King of the Zulus, recognised that his forces could only win in open battle when the British could not defend behind defences. Sadly for his people this understanding was ignored and on 29th March at Khambula the Zulus suffered their first heavy defeat of the war. In the long run this paved the way for their demise as the pre-eminent military force in South Africa.

Number four column, commanded by Sir Evelyn Wood VC had entered Zululand with the intent of marching towards the Zulu capital at Ulundi. His 2000 men were a formidable force, consisting of two battalions of regular infantry, artillery and several hundred boers, irregulars and locally raised native allies. Fearing that the same fate that befell the 24th at Isandlwhana a few weeks earlier might repeat itself, Wood proceeded with extreme caution. Aware that a sizeable army of Zulus (ten times his number) were approaching the commander set about defending a hill known as Khambula. His defences included the classic Boer Laager of Wagons, a redoubt on a higher ground and a palisade linking the two. This was a strong position with densely packed ranks of rifle armed troops supported by artillery. Ammunition was distributed and scouts were sent out to seek the enemy. The British waited.

For a full account of the battle I would strongly recommend this link.

Its been some time since we have played a game set in the Anglo Zulu War and given the anniversary of the Battle of Khambula is this week I determined that this would be our next engagement. But where to start?

Unfortunately there are few wargamers who have reported their take on the battle so I had to develop my plans from scratch.

A good starting point was to look at the orders of battle. Estimates suggest that the British had around 2,000 combatants and the Zulus 20,000. We do know the British had 15 companies of infantry and therefore basing the company on a notional 100 men the British were given 15 units of regular infantry. Each unit would be represented by four figures so a scale of 1 to 25 was adopted.  To supplement the British regulars the Allied force was given six more units of irregulars (boers, natives and mounted infantry) plus a couple of artillery pieces. With 21 standard units the British break would stand at 11 (ie if the Zulus routed or broke 11 or more units they would win). In total the British force had 84 figures plus officers and gun crews

The Zulus needed 10 times that number – sadly I don’t have 840 Zulu figures (only 700) so the Zulus would be slightly undermanned. Each of my Zulu warbands  are 12 figures strong (and would represent 300 natives in real life). These were deployed equally in three divisions (Left Horn, Right Horn and Centre) and each division would have three regiments consisting of six warbands. A regiment would therefore have 1800 men, a division 5,400, the Army in total 16,200.

Each regiment would be commanded by its own induna and would break once 2/3rds were destroyed (ie a loss of four units).

With the unit size settled I then addressed the stats for each unit. With so many forces on the table simplicity would be the order of the day. Using the Zulu warband as the base these guys would get 6 attacks in hand to hand, 1 missile attack, a morale save of 5+ and a stamina of four (ie they could take four hits). Previous games had shown how brittle these warbands were with only 3 stamina so an extra point was given. By contrast the British regular units are only a third of the zulu warband size and as such they would need to be modified. They would retain their 3 shooting attacks but both their stamina and Hand to Hand values would be reduced to 2. The British regulars would save on 4+ all irregulars would save on 5+. I figured that if the British could not stop the attacks with rifle power then the chances of them winning in a melee – one company versus one warband must put the Zulus at a disadvantage. Equally two companies standing side by can only be contacted by one warband and it becomes a more even affair. All the irregular units had the option of being mounted if they chose to be and firing from the saddle would reduce their shooting value by 1 dice.

Finally the Zulus were given the bloodthirsty trait (all missed attacks in first round of combat rerolled) and the British regulars given the steady trait (one failed morale save gets a reroll). To put this in context a unit defending a wall gets +1 added to dice rolls for morale meaning our pluckly redcoats would save on anything bar a 1 or a 2 (and still get a reroll.

As far as the table was concerned I built the hill (using parts of the Hastings construct) down the middle of the table. Length ways you are looking from the west to east. The redoubt sits at the eastern end, the cattle Kraal to its left on the southern side and the wagon laager in the centre. The terrain bits came from my Rorkes drift set and it was a perfect opportunity to use my cheap pencil sharpener wagons. As far as other terrain features were concerned the battle reports I Have read suggest that the southern side of the hill was traversed by a ravine hiding the Zulus until they got to the lip of the hill. We recoignised this by stating that anuy unit touchoing the base line was in the ravise and to escalate this cost a full move. To the west lay boggy ground and the left wing could only traverse if they rolled 4+.

The British units were deployed as per the original battle includer Bullers cavalry out to the far east goading the Zulu right horn into attack. The centre of the Zulus forces would come in from the south and the right horn from the Southwest.

The Zulus emerge in the East (top) and the South

More Zulus our in from the West

The defenders stand ready

Usuthu - the centre holds til the horns are engaged

Companies disperse along the barricades

The British centre supported by artillery

Bullers cavalry in the distance open up on the Zulu right

The left Horn pours forward

As does the right - the redoubtr is under threat

The first assault is repulsed oin the Zulu left - just too many guns

The right commences its climb up the hill under sporadic fire

The Redoubt comes under attack

Zulus crash against the defences but the Brits hold on

The Cattle Kraal is under attack

More Zulus rush forward ready to wash their spears

The last stand of the redoubt as one company meets its demise

A lone zulu unit braves fire from the Laager and is repulsed

The plucky redcoats are just holding on in the Kraal

The redoubt falls

The Kraal falls - the Zulus rush on

The batteries are blasting away but get caught in the open. 

The guns are about to be wiped out. The Zulus are siezing the initiative on their right and centre

A furious firefight erupts from behind the redoubt as the Zulus press on

The Left horn finally attacks the Laager but get driven back in disarray - the Zulu left wing is virtually wiped out

Defending the ramparts - independent fire at will

With the British left gone remaining units rush to the safety of the Laager

A lull as the Zulus ponder their next move - casualties have been extremely high

With the left horn gone the Brits can redeploy

The last stages of the battle - about half of the original zulu units are still intact - only tour british units and the guns have been taken down. With time running out the Zulus conceded feariing more lives would fall to the Martini Henry

As a game this was a visual treat and despite my our best efforts to break into the Laager early on we were thwarted by the massed ranks of British Infantry.

In the real battle the Zulus managed to take the cattle Kraal but could get no further.

It is estimated that every allied soldier shot on average 31 bullets – that’s 60,000 pieces of lead flying through the air. The Zulus got their backsides kicked bigtime. In historical terms the Brits lost about 80 men the Zulus close to 2000. A resounding British victory.

Although we failed to complete the game it was evident that the Zulus were going to probably come off second best. The entire left wing had been destroyed and much of the centre had suffered heavy casualties. A full assault on the laager was possible but the bloodshed was going to be horrendous.

The group agreed that it was a relatively well balanced game, had fortune shined on the Zulus  they could have won albeit improbably.  Its interesting to note that when we fought Isandlwhana the British forces got decimated – they had no cover, were too spread out and could never sieze the initiative. In contrast, this game illustrated that a concentrated defence wins these types of battles.

A big thank you to all those that took part


  1. A great game report, and a close run thing.

  2. Great looking game and well done for attempting a battle which is so obviously numerically challenging...and making it work out 🙂

  3. IMpressive battle, and situation! Looks spectacular and fantastic!

  4. So the games and black powder give historical results. That's good.