An Excerpt from:
CHAPTER IV: "THE BEST ADVENTURE "
AT the end of March, 1896, the Matabele rose in rebellion. This warlike race lived in the part of South Africa just north of the River Limpopo, which we now call Southern Rhodesia. As white men had gradually spread themselves northwards, many covetous eyes had been fixed on the rich lands of the Matabele, and the last Chief, Lobengula, had made grants to some settlers and prospectors. At length the British South Africa Company, whose leading spirit was Cecil Rhodes, came into control. A war had been fought with Lobengula, but after his death in 1894 there seemed little chance of further trouble. By 1896, however, the natives had been driven desperate by disease amongst their cattle—their only wealth—and by what was in practice forced labour in mines and on farms. Their witch-doctors worked upon their feelings until they suddenly rose and murdered the men and women on outlying farms.
The British South Africa Company was responsible for law and order, but it was soon realized that no local force could cope with the problem. Major Herbert Plumer (later Field-Marshal Lord Plumer) was authorized to raise a Relief Force, but it was not until the end of May that he entered Bulawayo—the chief town—with his men. Meanwhile it had been decided that Imperial forces would also be needed, and Sir Frederick Carrington was put in command, with B.-P. as his Chief of Staff. They arrived in Bulawayo in June
The task was a difficult one, for the Matabele worked in small groups without any central command, and they took full advantage of the nature of their country. They did not come down into the plains if they could avoid doing so, but preferred to fortify positions in the mountains. This is how B.-P. described one of these strongholds.
Bulawayo itself was near the Matoppo Hills, which provided just the kind of natural protection which the Matabele found most useful. It can easily be imagined from this that pitched battles were out of the question; each stronghold had to be taken in turn as a separate job, and before this could be attempted the position had to be most carefully examined by the scouts. This was work after B.-P.’s own heart. There were no trained scouts amongst the troops, but they had with them a famous American scout, F. C. Burnham. He and B.-P. worked closely together, and Burnham was so struck with B.-P.’s skill in reading sign that he nicknamed him Sherlock Holmes. When Burnham left, B.-P. did most of his scouting alone or with one native, Jan Grootboom.
His method of scouting has been described by a journalist who was in Bulawayo.
The Matabele soon came to know that B.-P. was a most skillful scout, and they named him "Impeesa", which means "the wolf who never sleeps"; at the sight of him they would shout out his name with all kinds of threats of what they would do if he fell into their hands. It was this kind of danger which added a thrill to B.-P.’s soldiering, some parts of which were rather dull. As Chief of Staff he had considerable responsibility. Office hours took most of the day; he had to write out orders, and make many of the arrangements for putting them into action. B.-P.’s instructions were always brief and to the point. One officer has described the orders he received: "They were exactly seven short lines in length, but contained all one wanted to know, and in other things left me a free hand. "That was always B.-P.’s method; having given the main facts, he left it to the man on the job to work out the details for himself. Occasionally he himself took charge of operations. Here is an account written by one of the troopers.
B.-P.’s quickness of observation of details often saved difficult situations. On one occasion, for instance, he was taking a troop of men across country to a river; but unfortunately the maps were at fault, and the river was not where it was marked as being. The sun during the day was so hot that they did most of their riding in the evening and at night, as it was moonlight. Lack of water was a serious matter in such a climate. At last, when men and horses were almost exhausted, B.-P. halted for a rest while he and another officer rode on in search of the river or at least of water. They carried on until the moon set, when they had to stop and wait for the dawn. Then on they went with their search. Suddenly B.-P. noticed a place where a buck had been scratching for water; he argued that an animal would not do that without some good reason; so he got off his horse and began digging with his hands. Soon the soil became damp, and presently as he got lower water began to trickle into the hollow. Then he noticed two pigeons fly up from behind a rock farther off; he went there and behind the rock found a small pool. An hour later the rest of the men joined them, and during the heat of that day they rested by the tiny pool: "a scorching hot day, "he recorded, "flies innumerable which are stopping all our efforts to sleep, and the prospect of another night march before us."
In Scouting for Boys he gives another good example of observation and deduction.
The most serious operation B.-P. carried out was against one of the Matabele leaders named Wedza, who had taken refuge with several hundreds of warriors in just such a stronghold as has already been described. Wedza’s kraals were perched along the crest of a mountain some three miles long, and a neck or pass connected this with the main range. B.-P. had with him only 120 men, so he had to play a game of bluff, a game at which he was an expert.
He began operations by sending twenty-eve mounted men to the neck with orders to act as though they were ten times as strong; the guns were to bombard the crest, and the rest of the force, some hussars, were to demonstrate against the outer end of the mountain and against the back of it. After some skirmishing the mounted infantry pushed their way up to the chosen point, leaving their horses below with seven horse-holders; but the enemy began to assemble in force and to threaten the hill party.
B.-P. saw their critical position, and sent a message to the gunners and hussars to make a diversion. But these had been unexpectedly delayed on the road and were not yet near enough, so he took the seven horse-holders, and with them moved round in rear of the position; then, scattering the men, he ordered magazine fire so as to give the idea that there was a large attacking force on this side. The ruse was completely successful. The rebels who had been pressing over towards the neck hastily spread themselves all over the mountain, and the arrival of the rest of the troops at this moment completed the illusion. The hussars moved round the mountain, and were scattered to a certain extent so as to represent as strong a force as possible and to impress the enemy. It was decided that no assault should be delivered that day; but the deception practiced by the attackers was carefully kept up during the night. Fires were lighted at intervals round a great part of the mountain, which were fed by moving patrols, and the men forming these patrols had orders to discharge their rifles from time to time at different points. Everything was done to make Wedza and his followers believe that a whole army was against them; and the next day the kraals were captured with ease, most of the enemy having slipped off in the darkness.
The main campaign was settled when, through the efforts of Jan Grootboom—who was B.-P.’s chief native scout—the Matabele leaders were persuaded to meet Rhodes for a palaver. It took some months to get the whole country, and Mashonaland to the north, really settled, and it was not until the beginning of 1897 that B.-P. was free to return home. For his services in the Matabele Campaign he was promoted Brevet-Colonel; a high rank to have reached by the age of forty.
From: E.E. Reynolds, Baden-Powell: The Story of His Life, London, Oxford University Press, 1943.