From Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: “The White Man’s Grave” by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), Kindle pp. 27-32:
The Asante army was not a regular force, although there did exist a small trained cadre stationed in Kumasi to protect the capital and the Asantehene. This formed the nucleus of any expeditionary force. However, in other respects the army was more akin to a feudal levy of the European Middle Ages in that most of the manpower was assembled at the outbreak of war from troops raised by the twenty-four tribal heads and later from tribes that had been annexed into the Asante Empire. At its maximum, the Asante army was said to have been up to 100,000-strong. However, most armies were not as large as this; for example, around 40,000 warriors opposed the British in 1874. The fact that such a force could maintain its cohesiveness and discipline, especially as its ranks did include men taken from recently vanquished tribes, is miraculous and its success can be attributed to several factors.
The Asante military leaders quickly realised the important advantage that firearms gave them over their foes and the leadership generated a winning mentality and even a sense of superiority amongst their troops that they had a share in a glorious military tradition. This went even further in that the Asante nation, with each victory and conquest, rapidly gained amongst its people and from those of other tribes and nations, even European ones, a reputation as a self-governing, independent state that was wholly indigenous and not one that had evolved as a result of outside influences.
Once war was declared against another tribal state the decision to do so would be made by the Asantehene, his privy council, the chiefs of the twenty-four individual states that comprised the nation, and, as time went on, the chiefs of the newly acquired vassal states that had been brought into the Asante nation by conquest.
If war was declared, then the chiefs, who also served as the captains of the various states, would return to their lands and call their people to arms. Every male citizen was a soldier and all able-bodied men were expected to ready themselves for military service. However, a quota system existed so that only a proportion of men were called for action with the remainder left at home to provide security as well as, crucially, manpower to ensure that the farming systems continued, and future famines were avoided.
There was a large element of discipline, even subjugation, which was used to maintain the army’s effectiveness. There were severe punishments, including death, for failure to report for duty, for desertion and cowardice. A military police force armed with whips and swords had to be used to encourage some into battle and those few that refused were despatched on the spot with an axe. Yet, overall the command structure centred on the king, his privy council and the army general staff was incredibly effective not only on the battlefield but also in bringing the army to readiness and for ensuring that logistically it was able to fight and achieve victories. Each army group took its own supplies of food and ordnance on campaign. Uniquely amongst African armies, the Asante boasted a corps of medical orderlies, the Esumankwafo, who accompanied the army into battle. This corps attended to wounded troops as well as removing the dead from the battlefield, for immense trouble was taken to conceal losses from the enemy.
A typical Asante battle column was said to have originated by observing ants on a march and comprised a body of scouts, an advance guard, the main body, in which the army commander was found and secured, left and right wings and a rear or home guard. Certainly, in wars with tribal states the battle could be effectively won if the opposing king or general was either killed or captured so the Asante army ensured that their battlefield commanders were well protected in the centre of the formation. The home guard was tasked either with staying in the capital Kumasi or returning immediately to the capital after a battlefield victory, or a rare defeat, to ensure that the security of the capital was maintained. The scouts would first engage with the enemy who would then be drawn in towards the main body. As this was happening the left and right wings would endeavour to surround the enemy for, although the principal aim was to defeat their foe, the secondary one was to capture as many as possible so as to sell them to the slavers on the coast. In addition, in a society in which fetishism and the worship of ancestors was important a number of the recently captured enemy were diverted to human sacrifice, a practice that continued right up to the late nineteenth century.
The Asante army was composed entirely of infantry for the inhospitable forest zone, and the presence of the tsetse fly there meant that horses and ponies would soon succumb. Most Asante troops were equipped with standard European trade muskets, which were poorly made with a limited range. On the West African coast such weapons had the common name of ‘Long Danes’, supposedly named as it was the Danes who first introduced them to the Gold Coast. This weapon was over 6ft in length and weighed nearly 20lb and a more unsuitable musket for forest warfare could not have been designed. In theory such guns had a range of 200yd but were rarely accurate beyond 30yd and although the enemy might be frightened by the explosive fire, it was unlikely to hurt them unless hit at very close range. Yet, the nature of the jungle fighting meant that if the enemy had not already fled at the sound of the approaching Asante army, then fire would often be at close proximity as the two protagonists were unable to see each other through the near-impenetrable forest.