Monday, July 27, 2015

Ombakane - 30 May 1879

Gav doesn't get to the club all that often, so it was flattering that when he did, he got in touch with me beforehand to arrange a game,  I offered to get my Zulu Wars troops organised for a game and he gamely agreed.  Gav plays Black Powder so it was an easy sell.

Our battle was to be a hypothetical set late in the war, based on Woods column heading south to support Chelmsford.  To this end the British, played by Gav, were tasked with two objectives for the battle: one; control the Thukela river crossing by placing artillery on the Ombakane hill covering it, and two; cross infantry to the far side of the river to secure passage.

 The British were divided into three commands, with some free ranging ammunition supplies.  Brevet Col. Wood led four companies of the 90th Foot, Whilst Lt. Col. Buller commanded the Frontier Light Horse.  Lastly Major Tremlett commanded a half battery of 7lb guns and a company of 13th Foot to guard the guns.  They deployed on the march.

 For the Zulus' part the Scenario gave them four entry points in the battlefield and their objective was simply to destroy the British force.  To this end they had for amabutho (regiments) formed of three Ibutho and in some cases some scouts.  The Zulu were also permitted a number of decoys - goats as it turned out.

See Zulu a mile away - scatter! 
Each Zulu unit was represented by a hidden marker until a British unit could draw line of sight to it at a range of less than 50cm (for the game we simply switched all measurements to centimetres).  At the start of the game Buller took his horse forward to reconnoitre the hills, and drew the attention of a hundred or so Zulu scouts.  Hearing of these, Wood responded (by rolling a blunder) retiring his battalion in panic, thinking the enemy numbers far greater than in truth they were.

This embarrassing lack of composure was to set the tone for both sides' generalship throughout the battle.
 Buller carried on up the hill and discovered some 6-700 Zulu behind it.

 Buller drove of the scouts, with support from the 13th Light Infantry, and then went on to charge the Zulu infantry beyond.  On the left the men of Wood regained their composure and marched over the long ridge before them, discovering a thousand more Zulu in the process.

 The light horse made short work of the first Ibutho encountered, and their charged continued on to crash into a third body of men discovered behind the hill.  But by this time it appeared they were a spent force and the Zulu were easily able to drive them off,

Run away!
 Wood meanwhile had hastily had to form a firing line to keep the enemy at bay.  The Zulu had used the cover in the hills to approach fiendishly close - within 30 yards or less; Wood must lay down considerable fire swiftly, lest his men be overwhelmed.

 By this point, another thousand natives had crossed the river and ominous sounds of the march were coming from the direction of Ombakane hill.

 Tremlett's artillery was finding its progress hampered at every turn by poor quality trails in the valley.  It also looked rather deserted by the 13th Light, who were now wholly engaged in supporting Bullers' fight with the natives on the hill.

Steady lads, make every shot count
Woods line laid a heavy fusillade down upon the Zulus, and managed to disorder the entire line, buying valuable time.  However 'C' company on the end of the line ran low on ammunition n the process and had to await resupply.

Cannister, 200yards, FIRE!
Tremlett saw Zulu scouts approaching, and rapidly unlimbered his guns. Just in the nick of time as it happened, for moments later the scouts tried to charge the guns; had the not had cannister ready the guns would surely have been lost.

Rather the Zulu were forced to retire.

Wood's men began to envelop the Zulu, enfilading the mass from both sides.  The Ambutho begins a slow collapse, but Wood is aware of a second Ambutho moving up from the farmstead by the river.

Additionally, Buller is being kept in check by the Ambutho on the right, and a fourth formation had appeared on the hill at the heart of the British plans.

As one falls back another wave advances
Fresh Zulu now threatened the British, who at least had suffered only slight casualties thus far.  By this point there were some 4000 Zulu in the field, to the British forces of around 600 men.

The Zulu closed the line, bringing a great mass of me from the loin of the bull into the centre of the field.  The Zulu were under no illusion that the British were still in command, all their efforts to this point had only contained the advance of the enemy, but they had yet to close with the hated British infantry, and all attempts to do so had been fought off by a hail of Martini Henry rounds.

Finally though, they were able to catch the 13th Light in the open and drive them away in disarray.  Badly mauled and with significant losses the 13th retreated past their guns, who wisely decided to limber up and withdraw.

Time to retire chaps
Wisely too, for Zulu pursued it (though not wholeheartedly) and came within an ace of capturing the guns.  By this stage the British were becoming encircled, but Tremlett managed to rally the 13th, and set upon a bold - if rash - plan.

Seeing a gap in the enemy lines, Tremlett took personal command of the guns and dashed them to the hill; their objective.  Alas the bluffs surrounding the top proved steeper and more difficult than he had first percieved, and the guns became firmly stuck.

Dammit Sirs, move the guns!
The Zulu watched in amazement as the guns flew through the lines, but they then hollered with joy as they became stuck, horses bucking and limbers sliding from the trail.  They saw a chance to cut off the feared cannon and charged.

The valiant artillery men held the first attack, and were within an ace of being supported by elements of the 90th.  But the Zulu climbed the rocky slopes like men possessed and put the crew to flight or the blade.

Add caption
With the light fading and time against them, Wood called off the attack, the loss of the artillery would make his plan difficult to execute to say the least.  Rather he await the rest of his column to move up and hopefully brush the Zulu aside.  A tally of the casualties indicated Wood had 53 Dead, mostly amongst the Artillery and cavalry, and a similar number of wounded.

For the Zulu part it was a Pyrrhic victory at best.  They left behind some 400 dead on the field and of their wounded another 500 would either succumb to their injuries or remain absent for the duration of the campaign, perhaps blighted by injury for the rest of their days.  Certainly the present force as it stood would be in no position to oppose Wood's column for a second day of action, but at least as this day closed the British would view the river from afar, out of reach, and lit by the glow of the burning artillery train.

A great little game, that swung both ways during the course of play.  Both our lead generals proved to be Unwilling or incompetent at times with both of us managing a couple of blunders during the games.  In the end it was a failed 'Follow Me' left the artillery stuck on the hill.  Passing it would have deployed them to the top of the hill, ready to fire case into the onrushing horde.  The balance of my forces seems about right, and historically the battle seemed credible.  The Zulu could use terrain to approach the redcoats with ease, but the British firing line could hold them at bay with steady fire.  Overall a grand little game.

Maybe I'll get another one in soon.

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