Friday, 31 October 2014

Development of tactics and technology in the British Army between the Zulu and Boer Wars

Development of British tactics was influenced by the invention of smokeless powders between the Zulu and Boer Wars. This allowed for the development of long-range, high-velocity rifles and artillery that pushed the size of the battlefield out to up to ten miles by 1899, in sharp contrast to the maximum size of a few thousand yards in 1879. This technological development necessitated new developments in tactics, marking a shift away from the linear, infantry-dominated tactics of the Zulu War to a combined arms approach of infantry and artillery in an effort to overcome the power of the defence and close with the enemy.

Tactics at the start of this period were infantry-dominated, with the artillery “merely supplying the first act in the three-act drama”. The 7-pdr field gun of the Zulu War had a range of 3,000 yards, but the shrapnel shell’s fuze was unreliable and they may not have burst over the target effectively. Thus, the deciding arm was the infantryman and his rifle, a Martini-Henry single-shot, lever-action breech-loader. It was sighted to 1,000 yards but in practice was effective to around 400 yards. It had a maximum rate of fire of 12 rounds per minute, but this was rarely achieved even in dire emergencies and would be wildly inaccurate. The preferred rate was 4 rounds per minute, done to conserve ammunition and improve individual accuracy. The black powder .450 cartridge also created a pall of white smoke around the soldier after prolonged firing, which could build to an all-obscuring cloud around a company, hence why the British Army still wore the red coat for easy identification and improved command and control.

Inaccuracy at range and low rates of fire therefore meant that the emphasis was on controlled, massed volley fire from a linear formation. This had a greater physical and psychological effect on the enemy, even if independent fire was individually more accurate. The battalion was the basic tactical unit, with two companies of a hundred men deployed forward in line, screened by the most accurate men acting as skirmishers. Two more companies were kept further back in support, while the other four companies of the battalion stayed in reserve. The pace of the advance was regimented and men were not expected to take cover lest it disrupt movements, though skirmishers were granted greater independence. Emphasis was on achieving fire superiority to close with the enemy and deliver the final rush with the bayonet, a 21.5-inch length of steel nicknamed the “lunger” that increased the rifle’s length to six feet.

British tactics of the Zulu War were thus driven by the need to compensate for inaccurate weapons that were slow to fire, and necessitated controlled, linear formations. By the start of the Boer War in 1899, however, the Martini-Henry had been replaced by the ten-shot bolt-action Lee-Metford (later succeeded by the Lee-Enfield), which could fire twenty rounds per minute. The British field artillery piece of this era, the 15-pdr gun, was a breech-loader that could fire shrapnel or explosive shells up to 6,000 yards at up to 8 rounds per minute. Boer field guns initially outranged the British by 1,000 yards. Finally, as well as increasing the range of weapons, the powerful new propellants also burned without producing concealing smoke.

In particular on the flat expanses of the veldt, these weapons pushed the battlefield out over five to ten miles, and when combined with entrenchments, heavily favoured the defensive. Jean de Bloch warned that the power of modern artillery, rifles and entrenchments would create a “fire-swept zone” that would be impossible to cross without an eight-to-one numerical superiority, and then at the cost of ghastly casualties. Red uniforms and the tactics of the battalion were wholly unsuitable for this sort of war. Khaki had been adopted as rudimentary camouflage, and contrast to the Zulu War, individual marksmanship was now hugely important, as well as individual use of cover. With modern rifles, even units as small as a platoon could have a massive tactical or even strategic effect. Thus it was the end of tactics of line and column. Instead, “troops would have to endure a series of interlocking engagements, spread out not only over a great number of miles, but a great number of days, even weeks.” There were “no flanks, no rear, or to put it otherwise, it is front all round.” As well as the focus on the small unit, the Boer War also saw the development of combined arms, with creeping barrages being used for the first time to cover the advance of the infantry.

In conclusion, the development of smokeless powders, and consequently high-velocity, rapid-fire rifles between the Boer and Zulu Wars necessitated a change in British tactics. From the battalion-based, rigid, hierarchical infantry tactics of the Zulu War, these new developments meant that by the Boer War, the emphasis was on small units with greater responsibility devolved downwards and greater individual initiative. On top of this, the massive advantage these weapons gave to the defender meant that artillery was now pressed into new roles to cover infantry as they advanced.

Works consulted

Saul David, Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879
Ian Knight, Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift
Ian Knight, British Infantryman versus Zulu Warrior: Anglo-Zulu War 1879
Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War
Ernest Swinton, The Defence of Duffer’s Drift
T.H.E Travers, ‘Technology, Tactics, and Morale: Jean de Bloch, the Boer War, and British Military Theory, 1900-1914’

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