DBM Zulu Army
Carl Holliday

The Zulu of Natal, South Africa, belong to the Nguni ethnic group and is closely related to the Swazi (Ngwane) of Swaziland, the Xhosa of South Eastern South Africa and the Matabele and the Ndebele of Zimbabwe and Eastern South Africa. The Zulu kingdom grew in the lifetime of its most improtant king Shaka, into a political force in all of Southern Africa, dominating everything with a superior military drill and organization. This article suggests reasons for playing the Zulu as a DBM/DBA Ancients army and includes a suggested army list.

The Zulu army in question is not that which fought the British Empire at the close of the 19th Century. Rather, the emphasis is on the army of Shaka and the opponents it defeated. Natal of the early 19th Century was a hinterland, with very little European contact. The trade outpost of Port Natal (today Durban) was established only late in the reign of Shaka and his initial battles and subsequent conquests, leading to Empire took place prior to any noteworthy contact with Europeans. Europeans were however not unknown to the Zulu. The great port of Lorenco Marques (today Maputo) allowed traders and hunters access to the fertile Limpopo valley far to the north of the Zulu heartland.

It is perhaps suitable to explain a little about the Zulu language. Zulu is the basic stem and words concerning the Zulu may be derived from this:


KwaZulu is a landscape filled with dense mysterious forests and many gently and steep hills. The Valley of a Thousand Hills being very descriptive of the nature of the terrain and a popular tourist attraction. KwaZulu lies on the foothills of the Drakensberg range and extends to the Indian Ocean and it is officially classified as being sub-tropical. The Nkandla forest in the north still exists, but is surrounded by very rugged terrain, making it difficult to reach this interesting spot even today. The rivers are generally narrow fast flowing mountain streams widening out into streams of seldom more than 10 m in width. The Tugela, the traditional border between the Zulu Kingdom and British Natal is an exception and quite wide with a very strong flow. Due to the rugged nature of the terrain the rivers have many watefalls and rapids making them highly unsuitable for navigation. The annual Duzi Canoe Marathon offers various examples of the nature of the terrain and the state of the rivers in KwaZulu.

The social structure of the Zulu nation has been widely documented. For our purposes it is only necessary to note the following: the "regimental system" according to which all boys were grouped together in age groups (ubuntu) was not a military system. This was not done for military purposes, but had (and still has) very strong cultural and social functions. At some stages (and generally so under Shaka) girls were also grouped together into such age groups. Permission to marry was generally granted only by the king as a reward, sometimes en masse. Accordingly, it was considered a social distinction to be married. From this age group system, it was easy to from military units. It should be noted that Shaka placed maternal aunts in charge of the kraals (fortified villages) where these groups resided and that military command on the battlefield was exercised by elders and leaders selected for the bravery and skill.

Culturally the Nguni, of which the Zulu form part, had a highly stylised form of combat. Ambushes were unknown and treachery non-existent. Armies would form up within javelin range and shout abuse and challenges at the enemy. Long range javelin exchanges were the order of the day, with very little blood actually being shed. Defeat seldom meant more than becoming the tributary of a new paramount chief.

Shaka changed all of this. He set the example early on in his carreer by charging an enemy champion (unheard of!) and slaying him in full sight of the gathered crowds. Unhappy with the sandles he wore, as they restricted movement, he discarded these and had the terrible iKlwa fashioned. According to legend, the first iKlwa was made by blacksmiths living in the mysterious Nkandla forest. This weapon had a long, heavy tapered blade, and was affixed to short shaft. It could not be thrown, being suitable only to close combat individual stabbing tactics. Soon the young Shaka, in the service of the Mthetwa, had a whole army equipped and drilled to a highly level of discipline, ready to do the bidding of their general and trained to kill at close quarters. This army won spectacular successes and at first established the undisputed paramountcy of the Mthetwa. When news came of the death of Senzagakona, Shaka's father and king of the Zulu, he marched with his army to the Zulu kraal and became king, his half-brothers not relishing the thought of fighting the veteran of many bloody battles.

After becoming king of the Zulu, Shaka immediately proceeded to re-arm, re-equip and drill the Zulu according to his new military doctrine. Under Shaka defeated enemy were generally assimilated. The men were generally killed in combat or in the subsequent pursuit. The women were married off to Zulu warriors (traditionally men could have multiple wives) and the children raised as amaZulu.

Military drill was taught as soon as the boys had been inducted into their designated ubuntu. The discipline and endurance of the Zulu as a fighting force has also been well documented. Some sources indicate movement speeds of as much as 40km per day. This was made possible by each ubuntu's younger boys accompanying it as bearers, carrying staples such as maize meal in clay pots. Zulu warriors all carried the same arms in battle:


In battle Zulu warriors wore destinctive regalia, identifying them with their ubuntu. Although no formal uniform existed, headdresses of ostrich feathers, monkey tail kilts and cow tail leg decorations were used by almost all. Occasionally the right to wear the distinctive feathers of specific bright colored birds was granted in recognition of bravery. Leopard skins were and still are, reserved for the nobility.

The Zulu army under Shaka fought in three commands, using the famous bull's horns formation. As Krige has clearly shown, this was merely an adoption of the standard hunting tactics. A central command, usually of white shields, stood to face the enemy, while the two horns of younger, black shielded regiments would advance on the flanks. As soon as the enemy was surrounded the central command would advance into contact. A strong reserve was often kept which sat with their backs to the actual battle in order to prevent them becoming too enthousiastic!

When considering grading Zulu troops one has to consider their equipment, battlefield conduct and actual battle results. As indicated above, the Zulu were armed with close combat weapons which dictated a very individual style of combat. The impi's were drilled to very high standards of physical perfection and endurance. Discipline and loyalty came naturally in a society where family bonds were of less importance than loyalty to the king and ubuntu, in that order. On the battleifield the Zulu never fought with allies and never suffered battlefield treachery or betrayal. The reserve in the centre can be considered a separate command, or a part of the central command. The wings were composed of the younger, more eager black shielded ubuntu and generally considered faster and more agile. They were armed exactly as the white shielded ubuntu of the centre. Sometimes the ubuntu were mixed in order to strenthen the wings or to extend the lines. The Zulu did not win every single battle, and were occosionally defeated. However, their endurance and persistance defeated most enemies and initially at least their new weapons and tactics resulted in an impressive string of very bloody victories.

Based on the above, the Zulu army should have only Regular Sub Generals. The troops were used to discipline and to obeying direct orders. Accordingly the white shields should all be regular, with at least a few of the black shields as irregular simulating youthful eagerness and aggression.

Zulu 1816-1828

Tropical. Aggression 4. Wd H(S) H(G) RGo M Rv BUA

C-in-C - Reg Bd(F) @27AP 1

Sub-Generals - Reg Bd(F) @27AP 1-3

White shielded ubuntu Reg Bd(F) @7AP 18-24

Black shielded ubuntu Reg Ax(S) @5AP 20-40

Youthful black shielded ubuntu Irreg Wb(F) @3AP 2-8

Scouts and bearer boys Up to Half Reg Ps(S) @3AP rest Irreg Ps(I) @1AP 2-8

Thorn boma for kraal only to defend BUA TF @2AP 0-12

The is army is highly terrain capable and was generally successful against opponents located in areas with similar geographical features. The three sub generals allowed reflect historical practice and allows for a fourth reserve command. In this period the Zulu were very aggressive and never had to defend attacks on their own villages. Their pastoral skills allowed them to have cattle with the required coloring available within a season or two. Baggage may be mobile in the case of bearers and may include captured cattle.

This is a very colorful army both to paint and play, forcing perspective on the cultural and battlefield conduct of the Zulu people.

Carl Holliday may be contacted by email: cholliday@lexpro.co.za