The Case for History: 1879 as 2019

Simon Sole
7 min readOct 2, 2019


The United States’ relative global power is reducing just as the United Kingdom’s was 100 years ago. Modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are worth comparing to Zulu Wars of 1879. In both cases there was a near identical collective failure to integrate easily available local knowledge into a coherent strategy. Both wars were fought with new military technologies whose effect was only partially understood. History is worth the effort!

At some point all great powers decline and the reason is nearly always the same. Their monopoly on power leads to an appetite for empire which in turn leads them to acquire more territory or markets, than they can reasonably control. Early signs of this decline are small military defeats which embolden other challengers and undermine the domestic narrative that the imperial enterprise is worthwhile and low cost.

In 1879 the Britain was in the middle of just such a 100 year decline. In the early part of the 19th century, France the old rival was truly subdued, China was easily forced to receive opium their emperor had pleaded to exclude and the United States was a promising new market. A hundred years later, in 1920, Britain had needed non-European help to win a European War, the like of which had been easily won in 1815, the British treasury was empty and its markets, even in India, were no longer compliant monopolies.

Might the United States in 2019 be at the start of a similar decline in power? In 2004 Afghanistan and Iraq had been easily overcome, the dollar dominated markets and the US was able to superimpose War on Terror priorities on all foreign relationships. It is very different now. The US has held back from a military confrontion with Iran and its preferred terms of trade are being effectively resisted by China. Domestic self doubt, largely absent until the invasion of Iraq, is now a dominant US political theme.

In both cases, the great power felt weaker than others perceived it. They each took what they saw as defensive actions, which locally were anything but that: 1879 Zululand and Afghanistan, 2000s Iraq and Afghanistan. In all cases, the invaded countries were bewildered but aroused to effective resistance. We are all curious how the United States will transition from its all powerful status of 2003, to a Trumpian policy which costs less and benefits US citizens more directly.

A failure of knowledge

We live in a knowledge revolution which is changing how we think, decide and act. This should lead to much better decisions but individually clever people remain capable of collective stupidity. This is not new but knowledge-led decision processes seem to flounder particularly fast when a bold national policy collides with intelligence material which is qualitative and therefore poorly evidenced. (Intelligence consumers always prefer evidence they can see or count, such as the size of an army, and discount more subjective factors such as how well that army will fight). In both 1879 and 2003 the great powers’ centrally directed foreign policy, distorted knowledge in a way that goes well beyond a reasonable political determination to succeed.

In 1879 it was Zululand that military commanders expected to be easy to subdue and was not, in 2003 it was Afghanistan and Iraq. Both were intelligence failures because readily available local knowledge did not adequately shape the original policy choices. Dominion status had worked in Canada in 1867 and this was cheerfully mapped onto South Africa despite Boer and Zulu equivalents being absent from the Canadian model. Achieving dominion status for South Africa with few resources, required a narrative into which all facts had to be fitted despite clear evidence to the contrary. The intelligence failures in Afghanistan were not identical but in each case bad news was progressively edited out as reports rose through the governing bureaucracy. The assessments of the Taliban in say 2008 were just as distorted as that of the Zulus in 1878. The human factors which caused this distortion were nearly identical.

The agents of change are different in each historical period but the collective human reactions are similar enough to make the study of history worthwhile.

Military history brings the added fascination of ordinary people risking their own lives whilst efficiently organising the deaths of many others. Such risk and destruction is, thankfully, outside everyday experience of most modern citizens and yet in a different place or time, any one of us could have been victims or participants. Our fascination might be slightly morbid but military history draws the curious to its flame, in order to better understand mankind’s most disastrous creation; war.

The specifics of 1879

The immediate cause of British Army’s defeat at Isandlwana in 1879 was that Lord Chelmsford did not know where the Zulu Army was; the camp at Isandlwana was not prepared with the standard defensive preparations; and Lord Chelmsford spilt his force believing each part to be sufficient to face the low threat he expected. In particular, he believed in the tactical supremacy of new British weapons and methods. The underlying cause of all these errors was a failure of knowledge and the absence of an effective staff to manage what knowledge there was. The Colonial Office in London was against the invasion of Zululand but in South Africa, Sir Bartle Freer and Lord Chelmsford both wanted it to go ahead to fulfil the wider objective of dominion status for South Africa. There were too few troops in South Africa and the British government did not want to send more. Thus, to get the operation off the ground there emerged an unlikely narrative that the Zulu Army was large and dangerous to white settlers in Natal, but weak and ineffective if confronted by a modern Army. Both were wrong and if dishonest intelligence underpins the initial strategy then it becomes harder for subsequent relevant intelligence to be adequately assessed. The intelligence function becomes demoralised and marginalised and then either sulks in silence or responds with advocacy not analysis. Isandlwana was not just a military defeat but an epic failure of how knowledge should inform decisions. This failure occurred again a century later in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the other hand, Cetshwayo King of the Zulus despite the most basic facilities, seems to have handled knowlege quite efficiently. He found out things he needed to know such as where most of Lord Chelmsford’s Army was. He correctly understood the intentions of the British. In short, his intelligence process stands in exemplary contrast to that of Lord Chelmsford and he did not lose because of it.

Revolution in Military Affairs

The modern phrase Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) signals that new technologies are changing the very nature of warfare. For example, does the Iranian shoot down of a US drone mean the US and Iran are at war? Can the big conventional battle platforms like aircraft carriers withstand AI controlled swarm drone attacks? Is cyber warfare actually warfare?

Military institutions are slow to change. Their need for rapid, executive action necessarily concentrates authority in a hierarchy whose operational experience pre-dates the latest technology. There can be no free market in military thought in which an energetic junior might overturn institutional preference. Furthermore, armies have a large legacy of existing weapons and trained manpower which they are slow to admit might be irrelevant even while they selectively adopt new technology. All war is risky but much more can go wrong if a war occurs in the middle of a transition to untested new methods, organisation and technology.

1879 was exactly that. For example, better firepower now favoured the defender. British military observers at the Battle of Gettysberg 1863 had reported that attacks on prepared infantry positions which had artillery were now impossible and that was before the arrival in 1871 of the Martini Henry rifle which meant a soldier could fire 5 times as many bullets in a minute. Commanders felt the British Army, with its disciplined formations and new rapid levels of fire had little to fear from any opponent and certainly none from Zulus who mostly had spears. The 1879 battlefield also had become more complicated and needed more professional management. The Franco Prussian War of 1870 had shown that a well organised Prussian Army with a professional staff corps could manage battles more efficiently than the landed gentry. The Cardwell reforms in the British Army in 1874 attracted a higher calibre of private soldier who could no longer be flogged with impunity and who was allowed to serve in regionally based regiments. These were all big changes and were individually easy enough to understand but collectively they were untried. In 1879 they certainly led to very long wagon trains but there had been few innovations in lugging, pulling and carrying! There were just as many questions about the science of warfare in 1879 as there are now. Wars which take place in the middle of Revolutions in Military Affairs are more risky.

Perhaps Lord Chelmsford thought that the modernity of his weapons would offset all his other shortages? He would not have been the first military commander who obliged his political masters even though he knew he was short of what he needed. You cannot blame soldiers for wanting to soldier but the enthusiasm of commanders is an operational asset but strategic burden. Helmand 2006 and Zululand 1879 may share that feature. 1879 is a more interesting year than we might have realised.



Simon Sole

Former intelligence analyst, founder entrepreneur now historian/film maker. Analyst not an advocate. Degrees from Cambridge and University of Baluchistan.