A Review of “The Anglo-Zulu War” by Dan Mersey

A Wargamer’s Guide to The Anglo-Zulu War
Daniel Mersey
Pen & Sword Military 2017
ISBN: 9781473849556

This title is one of the latest offerings from this excellent series of books which are intended to be a low-cost general introduction for existing wargamers to take up a new historical period, in what I can best describe as the spiritual successor to the Airfix guides from the 70s.

This is the third title I have reviewed from the Wargamer’s Guide series and in common with the rest of the series, this title is a fairly small format softback, containing 113 pages of fairly large type with no illustrations but a centre spread of eight pages of full colour photographs on glossy paper. As there’s no primer on what wargaming is, books in this series wouldn’t be particularly suited for somebody looking to get into the hobby for the first time. The books are priced at UK £12.99 / US $ 16.95 each and I picked my copy up from Mighty Ape for $19.99 but I notice it’s also available from Amazon.com.au and doubtless many other booksellers.  As anyone who’s read any of Dan’s many rulesets or articles will know, his style is light and to the point which makes it ideal for a series such as this with a lot to pack into a small volume.

A short Introduction (2 pages) gives a quick argument as to the attraction of the Anglo-Zulu war (including an inevitable nod to the 1964 film, Zulu) and what makes it interesting to wargame.  There is a also an editorial note to explain the choice of using British spellings for names and places.

Chapter 1: The Anglo-Zulu War (9 pages) gives a lively overview of the context and causes of the war; the military campaign and major engagements and immediate aftermath of the war.  I only had some vague notions about the war outside of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift so I found it useful to get a better feel for the war as a whole rather than just those battles.

The British regular army in Zululand is covered next including a recap of the Cardwell reforms for length of service and the organisational structure.  A table breaks down the British units by column for the original and second invasions.  Weapons and equipment describes the dress and weaponry of the British soldier and includes a number of modern quotes from the likes of Donald Featherstone and Ian Knight which shed a light on some of the practical problems with standard issue equipment and likely field modifications.  Tactics describes the adoption of skirmish order by the British army and the rapid reversion to double close ranks as the campaign progressed.  A useful extract from the 1884 Field Exercise Manual lists the effectiveness of the iconic Martini-Henry against targets at various ranges.  A short painting guide discusses the differences between parade ground and on-campaign dress and a table lists the uniform facings of the British regiments in Zululand.

 

In Chapter 2: Armies, Organization & Equipment (31 pages) we first get Chelmsford’s tactical assessment of the Zulu army from November 1878 which covers recruitment, organisation, training and dress before describing how they would prepare for battle and their basic formations.  Chelmsford concludes by noting that the introduction of firearms into the Zulu army could considerably change how they fought.  The Amabutho system of army organisation is described in some detail, including a table listing the regimental strengths available in 1879, which were organised by age group.  Zulu weapons & equipment are covered next, including their adoption of firearms and then there is a description of the simple but deadly horns / chest / loins tactics, including several contemporary quotes from British soldiers.  The final section for the Zulus is a very useful painting guide and a table describing the shield patterns used by each regiment.

The final sections in this chapter cover British allied and colonial troops including the Natal Native Contingent, Natal Volunteer Corps and Irregular Horse.  There is a basic description of each, a discussion of tactics and a painting guide covering eight units.  I found this section particularly interesting as these characterful troops can be overlooked within some wargames publications.

Five major engagements are described in Chapter 3: The Key Battles (15 pages) – Nyezane, Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, Hlobane & Khambula.  Each battle is given a context within the campaign, initial troop dispositions and a narrative, usually accompanied by an account of the battle from a British solider.  The author helpfully recommends a specific book which covers each battle in more detail.  Following the general description, there are notes on wargaming each battle which provide suggestions as to whether to re-fight the battle in it’s entirety or whether to focus on specific sections or points in time.  There are also suggestions on how a scenario might be balanced (if desired) and how certain key aspects of the battle might best be modelled when designing a scenario.  As with other books in this series, there are no drawings to show the terrain and placement of troops which I think would have been really useful to bring the descriptions to life a little more.

The Photo Section (8 pages) has two or three photos per page, mostly showing individual units of painted figures but some showing larger battle scenes.  Aside from a couple of shots of 20mm figures, all the photos are of 25/28mm figures which I found slightly disappointing as it would have been nice to see a more panoramic view of a battle fought with 6mm / 10mm figures to show the formations in use.

Chapter 4: Wargaming the Campaign (13 pages) provides useful ideas on how to represent many of the defining characteristics of the Anglo-Zulu War in your rules and could be considered as a checklist for choosing a suitable set of existing rules or a toolbox for customising a more generic colonial set to best reflect the peculiarities of the conflict.  Topics include representing the very different technologies and tactics of the protagonists; dealing with the large disparity of troop numbers; terrain and concealment; ambushes; solo or collaborative games; ammunition supply; British overconfidence; performance of British allies and irregulars; differences in marksmenship and fortifications.  As with other titles in the series, this chapter is a real gem and provides a lot of food for thought.

Rules selection is covered by Chapter 5: Choosing Your Rules (15 pages) wherein a baker’s dozen of published titles are presented, spanning micro-skirmishes to large battles and free to download PDFs to highly professional sets such as Black Powder.  The descriptions give you a good idea of the popularity, complexity and style of the rules and are very helpful in narrowing down the options.  Thirteen titles is never going to be an exhaustive list but I was particularly surprised by the omission of the author’s own set The Men Who Would Be Kings  – perhaps out of modesty?  Published in 2016 by Osprey, this set of rules has become very popular for skirmish level games and anyone looking to play this size of game should definitely consider them.

 

Plastic and metal figures from 6mm to 30mm are covered in Chapter 6: Choosing Your Models (7 pages) with a paragraph each on 23 ranges describing their relative size and quality, availability and comprehensiveness.  As with the rules, this isn’t going to be an exhaustive list but for my own preferred scale of 10mm it was pretty comprehensive and a good starting point for further investigations.

Finally, Chapter 7: Scenarios (17 pages) presents six generic scenarios with suggestions for wargaming them (Protect the Convoy; Ambush on the Outcrop; Death to the Prince!; Strike at Dawn; Beware the Horns & Form Square!)  These scenarios don’t necessarily represent actual battles but reflect some of the styles of engagements that were fought or could plausibly have been fought during the campaign.  Most of the scenarios have variants included so that actual number of possible games is considerably more than six.  Each scenario is presented as a general description,  suggested forces involved, notes on table setup, victory conditions and rules considerations.  No drawings are included but since these are generic, I don’t think that particularly matters.  This is one of the best chapters in the book and really showcases the variety of interesting games that can be fought and the opportunities for balanced games, where that is desired.

 

The book concludes with a list of suggested titles for Further Reading (3 pages) and a comprehensive index. The further reading titles are all military history rather than wargaming books and there are quite a few Osprey books included. The books all appear to focus on the topics most of interest to the figure painter and tabletop gamer, such as equipment, dress and tactics.  Period experts Ian Knight and Ian Castle are both well represented.

My primary motivation for reading this book was to inspire myself to do something with the fairly large pile of (mostly unpainted) 10mm Anglo-Zulu War figures I have in my collection and the nicely painted Kraal and Rorke’s Drift scenery pieces I have to go with them.  After reading the book I *think* I’ve narrowed down my rules selection to Washing the Spears, which I already have, and Victorian Steel, which I don’t, so I need to move on to thinking about basing next.  I’d love to be able to do small skirmishes with 28mm figures but I already have way too many projects on the go to consider that for now!  This is possibly my favourite book in the series so far and definitely recommended for anyone considering trying out this period.

 

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