The word Impi is often associated in English with a Zulu regiment but in fact it just refers to any group of armed men, with the Zulu word for regiment being ibutho. This article will look at Impi in the British context as referring to a Zulu regiment.
The term was first used to refer to the regiments formed by Shaka Zulu as part of his army and which helped his bloody rise to power and served during his somewhat bloody reign in the early 19th century. Despite the western stereotype the Zulu army was highly organised with young warriors (the equivalent of the British drummer boys in many respects) joining the army as young as six and serving as porters and helpers (udibi) often following older relatives on campaign as servants, often in same age groups known as intanga. Eventually they would become inkwebane which roughly translated means cadets; at this point formal weapon training would start until called to serve by their king normally at the age of 20 which for contemporary armies was quite old. Stick duels were common and to refuse a challenge was seen as dishonourable.
The regiment’s first task on being formed was to build a stockade which would have several huts and fences to keep cattle in. This semi fortified homestead was known as an ikhanda. They would have to answer the call to serve unless married and permission to marry was granted by the king, this was later to cause discontent among Shaka’s army. Shaka ruled over many disparate tribes so to prevent rebellion regiments were organised by age (until the number of causalities prevented this) rather than recruited from any one particular region or tribe. Warriors swore allegiance to the Zulu nation and the king, not to any one tribe
Each Impi was made up of several ibutho, each approximately 1,000 warriors strong plus the young boys acting as servants and scouts for the army. Each had its own shield colours, and other emblems such as head dresses. The amount of black and white on a shield allowed the Zulu commanders to know exactly what regiment was where on the battlefield, much like the colours of the regiments did for the European armies. Shaka needed a fast mobile army, as early in his campaigns he was outnumbered and needed to manoeuvre quickly, so to ensure this the warriors were made to run bare foot so the loss of a sandal wouldn’t disable them and their feet were hardened, by frequent runs over the hot stony ground and by stamping thorns into the ground so that scar tissue would form.
In battle the troops were lightly equipped apart from a shield - any armour would have been impractical and useless anyway when facing European armies with guns. The elaborate dress seen in many films is a misconception and mainly ceremonial. Standard weapons were a short broad bladed stabbing spear and a heavy club, Shaka introduced the short stabbing spear and warriors did not carry spares so did not throw them in battle. Some regiments re-introduced throwing spears when facing the European and Boer armies but by this time they were also using looted firearms and primitive muskets traded to them by Arab traders. Although lacking the fire power of the modern armies European armies they later faced the Zulus were well disciplined and brave and once they closed with the enemy their greater training in close combat and the advantage of having a shield made them lethal. They were also know for the ritual of “washing of the spears” - a tradition of cutting open fallen enemies’ bellies so that their ghost/ spirit would be free and not haunt the person who killed him. This was seized upon by the media to help portray the Zulus as blood thirsty savages. Discipline was harsh but not exceptionally so if compared to contemporary European armies, cowards were shamed and normally executed and the brave honoured, basic battlefield medicine was practised but the Zulus had surprisingly good causality recovery rates.
Tactically the Zulu army relied on speed and surprise to suddenly outnumber an enemy as at the battle of Isandlwana where a Zulu army destroyed a British army, an event which had a huge political impact back in Great Britain. Generally the lightly equipped, forging Zulu army could cover 20 miles in a day and still fight at the end of the march. Battlefield tactics involved the famous Buffalo formation which is basically an double envelopment with a strong central group engaging while the horns of the formation flanked on both sides encircling the enemy. Veterans were normally held back as a tactical reserve. Eventually despite some successes modern fire power was the downfall of the Zulu army. One of the most interesting aspects is the similarities of some aspects of the Zulu army organisation to the Roman Legions. The introduction of the short broad stabbing spear much like the roman gladius, the organisation into groups of 1000, the idea of regiments building fortified camps and being able to march 20 miles in a day and even the encircling tactic. These similarities maybe coincidental but they do make for some interesting comparisons.