The Battle of Isandlwana: 1879

By | October 21, 2019

[October 21, 2019]  A small group of young teenage boys sat on my living room floor to watch the movie Zulu (1964).  We were good friends and all raised in small towns of rural Louisiana, but we were also insular in our understanding of the world.  This movie provided us with a shocking glimpse into the real world.  Based on the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, the movie showed a technologically advanced army defeated by a primitive one.

There were only two movies in my youth that scared me and drove my nightmares.  The first was King Kong (1933) and this movie, Zulu.  Maybe we were too young to understand the implications of either movie, but I can say, unabashedly, that we were frightened by what we saw.  Of course, movies are designed to get an emotional reaction, and the Zulu movie succeeded spectacularly.  See my list of 20 war movies (list here); Zulu (1964) is in my inventory.

The Battle of Isandlwana was the first and remained the single greatest defeat for the British Army at the hands of a native army.  Approximately 22,000 Zulu warriors defeated a small contingent of about 1,350 British and Native troops in one of the first engagements of the Anglo-Zulu War.1  The Kingdom of Zululand was invaded by the British to expand their empire, particularly on economic grounds.

The battle was a decisive tactical victory for the Zulus.  After the battle, the British took a much more aggressive approach in the war, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and destruction of the Zulu nation.  While the Zulus won this battle tactically, the British would not stand for such a humiliating defeat and provided the manpower to defeat the Zulus strategically.

There were many reasons for the defeat of the British at Isandlwana.  Failure of leadership was the primary culprit.   Classic leadership failures plagued the British, underestimating the enemy, failure to prepare properly for defense on the march, ignoring requests for assistance, conflicting orders, and poor communications.  The biggest leadership failure was the lack of understanding of the Zulu warrior culture and its history of victory over indigenous foes.

Fortunate for the British, the Zulus also made several tactical errors in the deployment of their army.  Zulu forces missed an opportunity to destroy more vulnerable British forces and recklessly attacked a small fort, which repealed them with great loss.

As we sat on the floor, my friends and I watched as the “primitive” native Zulus attacked the great British soldiers repeatedly with overwhelming numbers.  Director Cy Endfield did a good job of showing the terror of warfare.  It influenced my decision later as an Infantry Officer to study the battle closely and learn from it so as not to repeat the catastrophe.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “The Battle of Isandlwana: 1879

  1. Crazy Dude

    Hi Gen. Satterfield. I really like this article. Keep up the great works. I see that you’ve also had a number of battles in your leadership blog over the years. Good reading! Thank you.

  2. Greg Heyman

    The greatest example of this in modern politics is how the US media, Hillary Clinton, her Democratic Party, and most of the American people underestimated Donald Trump. I was also duped by all the hype and thought Trump would lose but no matter what, I was not voting for that narcissist Hillary.

    1. Lynn Pitts

      And Hillary Clinton simply cannot seem to go away. What I like about her is that she continues to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that the American people made the right choice when they rejected her.

      1. Jonnie the Bart

        Time for Hillary to clean up her act. Time for those who love her to stop taking hallucinogenic drugs.

  3. Willie Shrumburger

    I too watch this movie when I was young. Later, many years later, I again watched the movie and found it to be more striking and full of leadership lessons. If you underestimate your opponent, you might lose the race. If you fear your opponent, you will run away and never succeed. Bravery and intelligence is what makes up the best leaders.

    1. Doc Blackshear

      Well said, Willie. That is why Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog is so valuable. We can also read comments and ‘fill in the blanks’ on what might be missing or simply implied.

  4. Ed Berkmeister

    Yes, this was a good movie and it showed kids like me that there was a world outside the small town I great up in in Ohio.

  5. Delf "Jelly" Bryce

    Those pesky 3-letter govt agencies, one of which I’ve been a member, usually begin their studies on strategy with this particular battle. It shows how a technologically superior force can be overcome with a determined opponent. This is not small idea. It’s been around for a long time. In fact, the story of the tortoise and the rabbit is the same story retold.

    1. Billy Kenningston

      Moral: never underestimate the weakest opponent.

  6. Nick Lighthouse

    Well, I certainly had a wonderful weekend. It was a time to watch “war movies” and have a generally good time with my family. The bad rainstorms in my area pushed us all inside for some tv time. I didn’t watch this movie but it can be found for free on the Internet. I highly recommend the movie; I have seen it many times.

  7. Gil Johnson

    Movies only give us a small glimpse (and distorted view) of reality. Of course, we will never really know what happened at the Battle of Isandlwana. What is important, however, is that we learn that leadership can fail and can fail so badly people die. That is why it is so important that the right leaders are there, at the right time, with the right skills and attributes.

    1. Eric Coda

      Kind of like the news media today – “small” glimpse and “distorted.” That is why I no longer watch television except to see a few movies and series and just on occasion. I think I’ll look up this movie and watch it. Thanks Gil for your comment on the battle also.

      1. apache2

        I think we’ve certainly beat that subject to death here.

      2. JT Patterson

        What is so weird is that people still believe what they hear from the media without question.
        Actually it’s pretty sad and scary that so many are mental zombies.

  8. Army Captain

    Yes, I remember several movies that at least touch on the battle. The original Zulu movie was remade but I believe the original was the best. Great job on this article, Gen. Satterfield.

    1. Darryl Sitterly

      Yes, good comment, Army Captain. Gen. Satterfield has put together a long history of great articles on relevant subjects that I’m interesting in. My wife reads this blog also but is hesitant to comment. Wanda, please comment sometime. Thanks.

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