Zulus, Romans, and British

Sep 2017
721
United States
#1
It is well known that the Zulus were heavily outmatched in the Anglo-Zulu war. Even in their victory at Isalwanda (no idea how to spell it:eek:), they took heavy casualties.

However, the amount of which they were able to compete with the British firearms is surprising. The fact they could cinch a victory even if it was quite pyrrhic in nature I find fairly impressive.

I would be willing to accept it, seeing as once they closed into melee the British were at a much larger disadvantage. But one thing bothers me.

I believe if the Romans (at peak of military development) fought the Zulus, they would win. After all, their armor, discipline, shields, and weapons would give them a far greater advantage. And I mean just in a theoretical, basic campaign, not if like Rome actually invaded all the way down Africa (to eliminate all that stuff and make just about tactics/strategy/warfare). Although they might not win every battle, I can't see the unarmored Zulus ever really winning decisively as the Roman style of warfare I think could beat them.

But if a Roman army went against a colonial British army, it would be over before it ever started. They would be nothing but bullet-riddled scutums and burnt ballistas before they knew what hit them, and would likely suffer more catastrophic results than the Zulus against the British.

My question is this: how can the Romans be able to beat the Zulu, but would be destroyed far worse by the British who also beat the Zulu but even lost a battle? I'm having trouble synthesizing my lenses of Colonial Warfare and Ancient Warfare, as each makes sense if I view them individually but when I try to put it all together it stumps me.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,074
Dispargum
#2
If the Romans and Zulus had equal numbers, I agree, Roman body armor would probably be decisive.

If the Zulus outnumbered the Romans in the same way that they outnumbered the British, then it gives the Zulus the opportunity to outflank and surround the Romans, just like they did to the British at Isandlwana.

Any Army A can defeat any Army B if Army B's commander makes enough mistakes. Chelmsford at Isandlwana made many mistakes.
 
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Jan 2015
2,933
MD, USA
#3
Well, it isn't all as simple as it looks! There are several ways the British could have (should have) won at Isandlwana (I think there may be an "h" in there somewhere), for instance just pulling their line back to be able to close their ranks and not be so spread out. (Screws from ammo boxes HAVE been found along the firing line, so the old theory that they ran out of ammo does not seem to be the major factor.) I suspect they simply could not put enough lead in the air at any one point to hold off overwhelming numbers.

I agree that the Romans would have an advantage in toe-to-toe battle with the Zulus. There are some fascinating similarities between them, but the armor will help a lot. On the other hand, the Zulus were just really FAST, and with a lot of open ground it would be very hard to keep them from swinging around your flanks. Or just being in a really different place than you expected, as you march to meet them. It would be something to see!

For Romans versus guns, remember that linear warfare with muskets and early rifles involved a lot of volley fire at pretty short range, trying to wear down the enemy or rattle them before charging. And most troops survived that. So it stands to reason that Romans could charge right through that without bothering to spend much time volleying--you can throw pila while advancing. And while armor was never meant to be bullet-proof, it would still deflect or slow a number of rounds which might have wounded. Musket balls were frequently under-powered, either because the powder was bad or most of it spilled during loading, etc., and such "spent balls" would have little or no effect on shields and armor.

And if the Romans DO manage to close with the British, well, it won't be pretty.

Solution? Hit them sooner with artillery and gatlings, please! Get your redcoats under cover or behind some kind of barrier--Rourke's Drift springs to mind. At that point, no idea how it will go!

Of course, you'd have to decide which force will have equal or superior numbers! The Zulus had a huge army, but you might not want the Romans to have overwhelming numbers against the British. Lots of variables!

Matthew
 
Nov 2017
789
Commune
#5
Well, it isn't all as simple as it looks! There are several ways the British could have (should have) won at Isandlwana (I think there may be an "h" in there somewhere), for instance just pulling their line back to be able to close their ranks and not be so spread out. (Screws from ammo boxes HAVE been found along the firing line, so the old theory that they ran out of ammo does not seem to be the major factor.) I suspect they simply could not put enough lead in the air at any one point to hold off overwhelming numbers.

I agree that the Romans would have an advantage in toe-to-toe battle with the Zulus. There are some fascinating similarities between them, but the armor will help a lot. On the other hand, the Zulus were just really FAST, and with a lot of open ground it would be very hard to keep them from swinging around your flanks. Or just being in a really different place than you expected, as you march to meet them. It would be something to see!

For Romans versus guns, remember that linear warfare with muskets and early rifles involved a lot of volley fire at pretty short range, trying to wear down the enemy or rattle them before charging. And most troops survived that. So it stands to reason that Romans could charge right through that without bothering to spend much time volleying--you can throw pila while advancing. And while armor was never meant to be bullet-proof, it would still deflect or slow a number of rounds which might have wounded. Musket balls were frequently under-powered, either because the powder was bad or most of it spilled during loading, etc., and such "spent balls" would have little or no effect on shields and armor.

And if the Romans DO manage to close with the British, well, it won't be pretty.

Solution? Hit them sooner with artillery and gatlings, please! Get your redcoats under cover or behind some kind of barrier--Rourke's Drift springs to mind. At that point, no idea how it will go!

Of course, you'd have to decide which force will have equal or superior numbers! The Zulus had a huge army, but you might not want the Romans to have overwhelming numbers against the British. Lots of variables!

Matthew
My God with this overrating. Muskets and rifles wouldn't penetrate Roman armour? What kind of hogwash is that? Moreover, they can still hit in the largely unprotected face of the Roman soldiers, thus if they charged towards the British many would be killed or wounded in such a way that it would break formation and allow for easy routing.

That's not even taking into account cannons and gatling guns that would be gunning down Roman soldiers by the dozens.

A Roman legion can only win using the same tactics the Zulu used at Isandlwana: superior numbers, swarming, terrain advantage and flanking by surprise. Even then it would have to be with the same number of British soldiers at Isandlwana (less than 2,000).
 
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Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
34,533
T'Republic of Yorkshire
#6
For Romans versus guns, remember that linear warfare with muskets and early rifles involved a lot of volley fire at pretty short range, trying to wear down the enemy or rattle them before charging. And most troops survived that. So it stands to reason that Romans could charge right through that without bothering to spend much time volleying--you can throw pila while advancing. And while armor was never meant to be bullet-proof, it would still deflect or slow a number of rounds which might have wounded. Musket balls were frequently under-powered, either because the powder was bad or most of it spilled during loading, etc., and such "spent balls" would have little or no effect on shields and armor.
Late 16th century warfare in Japan showed that musket balls were quite capable of penetrating armour and making a decisive contribution. The Japanese used metal lamellar armour - it was only afterr guns were introduced that the single piece "nanban" European style thick breastplate was introduced, specifically to combat bullets. These often have a dent in them where the armourer has fired a bullet into it to prove its resistance.

If these had been 19th century muskets, Roman era armour would have had no chance.
 

Kevinmeath

Ad Honoris
May 2011
13,938
Navan, Ireland
#7
......

If these had been 19th century muskets, Roman era armour would have had no chance.
If were are restricting ourselves to 1879 then the British are mainly armed with the Martini-Henry breech loading rifle, don't know for certain but very much doubt Roman armour (of whatever type) will stop its heavy calibre round.

Earlier muskets/rifles very much depends I imagine.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
34,533
T'Republic of Yorkshire
#8
If were are restricting ourselves to 1879 then the British are mainly armed with the Martini-Henry breech loading rifle, don't know for certain but very much doubt Roman armour (of whatever type) will stop its heavy calibre round.

Earlier muskets/rifles very much depends I imagine.
Yes, I had a brain freeze while writing that post and pictured Sharpe's men in the firing line instead of Pulleine's.
 

Nemowork

Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
8,407
South of the barcodes
#9
It is well known that the Zulus were heavily outmatched in the Anglo-Zulu war. Even in their victory at Isalwanda (no idea how to spell it:eek:), they took heavy casualties.

However, the amount of which they were able to compete with the British firearms is surprising. The fact they could cinch a victory even if it was quite pyrrhic in nature I find fairly impressive.

I would be willing to accept it, seeing as once they closed into melee the British were at a much larger disadvantage. But one thing bothers me.

I believe if the Romans (at peak of military development) fought the Zulus, they would win. After all, their armor, discipline, shields, and weapons would give them a far greater advantage. And I mean just in a theoretical, basic campaign, not if like Rome actually invaded all the way down Africa (to eliminate all that stuff and make just about tactics/strategy/warfare). Although they might not win every battle, I can't see the unarmored Zulus ever really winning decisively as the Roman style of warfare I think could beat them.

But if a Roman army went against a colonial British army, it would be over before it ever started. They would be nothing but bullet-riddled scutums and burnt ballistas before they knew what hit them, and would likely suffer more catastrophic results than the Zulus against the British.

My question is this: how can the Romans be able to beat the Zulu, but would be destroyed far worse by the British who also beat the Zulu but even lost a battle? I'm having trouble synthesizing my lenses of Colonial Warfare and Ancient Warfare, as each makes sense if I view them individually but when I try to put it all together it stumps me.
Already been wargamed, the Romans won

 
Jan 2015
2,933
MD, USA
#10
My God with this overrating. Muskets and rifles wouldn't penetrate Roman armour? What kind of hogwash is that? Moreover, they can still hit in the largely unprotected face of the Roman soldiers, thus if they charged towards the British many would be killed or wounded in such a way that it would break formation and allow for easy routing.

That's not even taking into account cannons and gatling guns that would be gunning down Roman soldiers by the dozens.

A Roman legion can only win using the same tactics the Zulu used at Isandlwana: superior numbers, swarming, terrain advantage and flanking by surprise. Even then it would have to be with the same number of British soldiers at Isandlwana (less than 2,000).
Whoa, slow down, amice! Yes, bullets WILL go through armor! I never meant to imply that I thought Roman armor was bulletproof. BUT---not every bullet hit is a direct, square, fatal hit. Some ricochet, some are grazes. Shields and armor WILL absorb or deflect at least some of those, no way around it. And as I said, *musket* balls can also be under-powered--I would certainly not count on a brass-cartridge rifle bullet to be under-powered at any normal combat range.

And yes, I agree that a Roman army's best chance against guns is to close quickly, and yes, numbers always help. But the fact still remains that it would hardly be a suicidal assault, since UNarmored armies of musket and riflemen blazed away at each other with quite acceptable casualties.

And I think I remember saying that artillery and gatling guns would be a great way to stop a legion.

I'm usually the last one to claim that Romans could kick ANYONE'S ass. Still don't like the thought of armored swordsmen with shields getting into a line of redcoats with bayonets.

Matthew
 

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