"The Wolf Who Never Sleeps"

An Excerpt from:
E.E. Reynolds, B-P: The Story of His Life,
London, Oxford University Press, 1943.


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.

"It is a long mountain, consisting of six peaks of about 800 feet high, its total length being about two and a half miles, and its width about a mile and a half. On the extreme top of five of the peaks are perched strong kraals (collections of circular mud huts), and in addition to these there are three small kraals on the side of the mountain; underneath each of the kraals are labyrinths of caves. The mountain itself has steep, boulder-strewn, bush-grown sides, generally inaccessible, except where the narrow difficult paths lead up to various strongholds, and these paths have been fortified by the rebels with stockades and with stone breastworks, and in many places they pass between huge rocks, where only one man can squeeze through at a time."

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.

"Wearing soft rubber-soled shoes, B.-P. used to spend his nights prowling about the Matoppos, spying on the rebels, calculating their numbers and locating their camping grounds. On four separate occasions he led Plumer’s troops to attack rebel strongholds in the hills, and on every occasion he brought us out right on top of the enemy, surprising the Matabele and enabling Plumer to give him what the latter used to describe as ‘ a good knock’.

"One night, after much persuading, he took me with him. We left Plumer’s camp at about 9 o’clock. Walking with an easy swing, B.-P. stepped out into the darkness. Soon we were amidst the great giant boulders of the Matoppos, where he seemed completely at home. He led me by a rough footpath on to a kopje (or hill). Peering over this, we could see, not 500 yards distant, the fires of an impi (a band of warriors). Signing to me to be silent, we watched a few minutes, and then, on a sign from Baden-Powell, we moved off by another path. ‘ Never return by the same road you took.’ This has become a scouting platitude, but in the Matoppos it was a very necessary precaution. It was with a sigh of relief that I found myself once more safely in Plumer’s camp. Once was enough. I never asked to be taken again."

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.

"On our journey up to Mashonaland in 1897 from Bulawayo, we had a deal of trouble with one of the native chiefs, who was firmly lodged with his followers in a rocky kopje. Our Colonel, Harold Paget, sent into Bulawayo for a gun of some sort, and after a while who should come to our little column—about 100 men with native levies—with an old 7-pounder— but Colonel Baden-Powell and the escort, mostly natives. W hen we first saw him we were rather astonished for he was remarkably dressed. He wore the typical ‘ Baden-Powell ‘ hat, a blazing red shirt with a large neckerchief, the knot at the back, breeches and leather gaiters, in which was a sort of pocket containing a revolver, so that when mounted on his pony he only had to stoop down to draw a revolver from either leg. Colonel Baden-Powell being posted to our column, and being senior to our Colonel, took over command and started to ‘ smarten us up ‘. The first order was that no man was to take his boots off at night, when we rolled ourselves up in our blankets. To enforce this he used in the middle of the night to come around the sleeping men and tap the bottoms of our blankets with his cane, to see whether we had our boots on or not. We got cunning eventually and used to take off our boots and put them at the bottom of our blanket, so that if they were tapped all would be well."

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.

"I was one day, during the Matabele War, with a native out scouting near to the Matoppo Hills over a wide grassy plain. Suddenly we crossed a track freshly made in grass, where the blades of grass were still green and damp, though pressed down; all were bending one way, which showed the direction m which the people had been travelling; following up the track for a bit it got on to a patch of sand, and we then saw that it was the spoor of several women (small feet with straight edge, and short steps) and boys (small feet, curved edge, and longer strides), walking, not running, towards the hills, about five miles away, where we believed the enemy to be hiding.

"Then we saw a leaf lying about ten yards off the track. There were no trees for miles, but we knew that trees having this kind of leaf grew at a village fifteen miles away, in the direction from which the footmarks were coming. It seemed likely therefore that the women had come from that village, bringing the leaf with them, and had gone to the hills.

"On picking up the leaf we found it was damp, and smelled of native beer. The short steps showed that the women were carrying loads. So we guessed that according to the custom they had been carrying pots of native beer on their heads, the mouths of the pots being stopped up with bunches of leaves. One of these leaves had fallen out; but we found it ten yards off the track, which showed that at the time it fell a wind was blowing. There was no wind now, i.e., seven o’clock, but there had been some about five o’clock.

"So we guessed from all these little signs that a party of women and boys had brought beer during the night from the village 15 miles away, and had taken it to the enemy on the hills, arriving there soon after Six o’ clock.

"The men would probably start to drink the beer at once (as it goes sour in a few hours), and would, by the time we could get there, be getting sleepy and keeping a bad look-out, so we should have a favourable chance of looking at their position.

"We accordingly followed the women’s track, found the enemy, made our observations, and got away with our information without any difficulty.

"And it was chiefly done on the evidence of that one leaf."

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.

The ribbon to the left depicts the ribbon of the British South Africa Company Medal for the Matabele Campaigns of 1896-1897.

  Major Burnham’s own account of Scouting with B-P in the Matopo Hills during the Matabele Campaign.
From Frederick Russell Burnham, Taking Chances, 1944
  Baden-Powell describes his experiences in Matabeleland in Lessons from the Varsity of Life,
Chapter VI:
  Baden-Powell Photo Gallery:
Early Years and Military Career, 1878-1898
Thumbnail Graphic Index
  E. E. Reynolds, B-P: The Story of His Life, is a major source of biographical information about B-P. It is one of several works by E. E. Reynolds documenting the life of the Chief Scout and the early days of the Scout Movement.
    Impeesa, "The Wolf Who Never Sleeps"
Matabeleland, 1896-97
Defense and Relief, 1899-1900
    The Beginnings of Scouting
First Steps. Brownsea Island, 1907
    B-P: The Man
A Character Sketch of a Great Man
  The Baden-Powell Library. A Selection of excerpts from the works of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career
  Sir Robert Baden-Powell, Founder of the World Scout Movement, Chief Scout of the World. A Home Page for the Founder. Links Relating to Baden-Powell on the Pine Tree Web and elsewhere. Text Only Index.

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