Chapter V: Soldiering
An alarming telegram came through from Zululand to say that the Usutus were up. They had defied the police; some troops from Natal had been sent to back up the civil force and had been driven back with loss. Generally the fat was in the fire.
The Governor of Natal (and incidentally of Zululand) was disturbed in his mind. He wanted more troops as a backing, but being by title "Commander-in-Chief " of Natal he did not want military generals butting in. However, General Smyth saw that if there were to be troops there must be transport and supplies and organisation and hospitals and remounts, and that every hour’s delay meant wider outbreak, so without ado he dispatched all necessary orders and promptly embarked with his Staff for Natal and Zululand.
Here again my luck was in. The post of Military Secretary was just then vacant, waiting for a Field Officer to be appointed from England. I was gazetted to act as such in the interim although I was below the rank of Field Officer.
The Staff consisted of:
I shall never forget my first meeting with a Zulu army. I was going with our troops on the march in Zululand when we met a group of warriors with a white man riding at their head. It was John Dunn, followed by a few of his head-men. John Dunn was an old Scottish trader who had lived since his boyhood among the Zulus, and was so liked and trusted by them for his honesty and courage that he had become the chief adviser to Cetywayo.
Even when the Zulus broke out in war against the British, and Cetywayo, thinking himself invincible, expected to invade and capture the whole of Natal, no harm was offered to Dunn. He even went so far as to try to persuade that great Chief that his outbreak was bound to end in disaster.
If one of his own people had dared to tell him this, Cetywayo would have promptly killed him, but he had too great a respect for Dunn,
All the same he did not accept his advice, and he lived to regret it when his vast army was finally smashed up in the battle of Ulundi, and he himself was taken prisoner.
It was after this defeat that Zululand was divided up into eight provinces by Lord WolseIey, and each province placed under a different Chief—of whom John Dunn was made one.
When we met John Dunn he informed us that he was bringing his Impi or Regiment along to join our force in our advance against the remainder of the Zulu nation.
A ZULU IMPI
Shortly afterwards I heard a sound in the distance which at first I thought was an organ playing in Church, and I thought for the moment that we must be approaching a mission station over the brow of the hill.
But when we topped the rise we saw moving up towards us from the valley below three long lines of men marching in single file and singing a wonderful anthem as they marched.
Both the sight and the sound were intensely impressive.
Then the men themselves looked so splendid. They were as a rule fine, strong, muscular fellows with cheery, handsome faces of a rich bronze colour, and very smartly decked out with feathers and furs and cows’ tails.
They wore little in the way of clothing and their brown bodies were polished with oil and looked like bronze statues. Their heads were covered with ostrich plumes and they had swaying kilts of foxes’ tails and stripes of fur; while round their knees and elbows were fastened white cows’ tails as a sign that they were on the warpath.
They carried huge shields of ox-hide on the left arm, each regiment having shields of its special colour, while in the right hand they carried two or three throwing assegais for hurling at an enemy, and a broad-bladed stabbing assegai which they kept for hand-to-hand fighting; while in their girdles was slung a club or axe for polishing off purposes.
With four great impis of this kind against us we felt that we were lucky in having at any rate one such force on our side, and under such a man as John Dunn. He and his Scouts were invaluable.
Apart from these our forces consisted of detachments of:
A FLYING COLUMN
The General, on arrival in the country, lost no time getting to work. Following up Major McKean’s success in the Southern part, he established a line of fortified posts to prevent the enemy from returning there, and arranged to attack the different hostile impis in detail before they could complete their concentration together.
But the first and most urgent business was to effect the relief of Pretorius, a magistrate who was besieged in his house by the Zulus. A flying column was at once formed for the purpose, consisting of 400 Mounted Infantry and Dragoons, two guns, 200 Basutos and native police, and John Dunn’s 2,000 Zulus.
This force was placed under command of Major McKean, and he took me as his Staff Officer.
We started off on the 7th July and covered the first fifty miles in two days, with the enemy hovering around us, not daring to attack at first, but on the second day they charged our rearguard, killing four of our men. They were, however, easily repulsed.
After the fight it was a filthy wet night which will always remain in my memory. We were traveIIing light without tents, but with a few mule wagons carrying rations and forage.
McKean and I bivouacked under one of these wagons, but it was only a presence of a, shelter, for the ground underneath was soft wet mud and very cold, while the rain ran steadily through the bed-boards of the wagon and dripped on us in a continuous stream.
We managed to light a fire near by, and adjourning to this we sat over it with our waterproof sheets over our heads.
One of our Zulus came in from the fight carrying a wounded girl on his back. It was rather a surprising thing that a Zulu should save one of the enemy, so we asked his reason; he informed us that this was his niece who was in a hut near the line of fire and a stray bullet had struck her in the stomach and gone clean through her.
"We had no doctor with the force so McKean and I took charge of her. She was very plucky and knelt up when we told her to so that we could plug the holes and bind her up. Her only clothing was a bead girdle and a necklace of black and white beads. So we procured a good big thick mealy sack and, cutting holes for her head and arms to go through, slipped it over her and made her comfortable by the fire then we boiled up a little soup and after giving it to her we left her in charge of her uncle while we retired to our bedroom under the wagon with a view to getting a little sleep.
Under the wagon one lay on one’s side in the mud trying to feel warm, and imagination went a long way. But when your hip got tired and you turned over to the other side you found the fresh mud so cold and wet that you didn’t want to repeat the performance. The rain coming down on top of one was wet it was true, but it had one good effect, namely that it washed off a good deal of the mud which was continually being splashed and spurted on to one by the mules picketed round the wagon stamping in the slush. It was a jolly night.
Then after a time the poor girl at the fire near by began moaning. So I got up and went to see how she was getting on. There she was, stark naked again, with the rain beating down on her and her uncle hunched up with her sack over his shoulders smoking a pipe. I ran at him in fury and landed him one kick before he disappeared into the darkness taking the sack with him.
McKean came and lent a hand in trying to make the girl more comfortable. We put his mackintosh coat over her and gave her some more soup. But before morning she died.
We had to make a very early start, before daybreak, so he and I put her into an ant-bear hole and filled it in as well as we could, and threw a great heap of thorn bushes over it to keep the hyenas away.
Before burying her I took the liberty of annexing her necklace as a memento, and it stood me in good stead later on.
We relieved old Pretorius all right and found him in his post, fairly fortified, and crowded with a collection of traders with their wives and children and friendly natives from the neighbourhood around. He had stood a heavy attack successfully but lost forty killed and fourteen wounded before he beat it off. He had done some fine shooting himself, killing two men under a certain euphorbia tree, which we found on measurement to be nine hundred yards from the fort.
We improved his fortifications and left a small garrison to protect him and returned to Headquarters taking the white women and children with us.
Also we took one or two natives who had been severely wounded in Pretorius’ defence, and a trader, who had escaped in a marvellous way when his wagon was captured by the Zulus. He had two wounds in his leg.
As amateur doctor of the force I had a very busy time of it, dealing with the wounded, some of whose hurts had not been dressed or dealt with in any way since they were received.
One of the white women also was very ill with dysentery; so altogether I served a very practical apprenticeship.
One officer with our native contingent was well known throughout South Africa as Maori Brown, a real hard-bitten adventurer, son of a general and of good old family in Ireland. He had lived a life of surpassing adventure if only half that he told of it were true.
After being educated for the Army he had got into various scrapes and he would have been cast off by his father had it not been for the intervention of another old general. They agreed on a reconciliation. He was invited to lunch to celebrate the occasion with the two old gentlemen at their Club; was lectured; he promised reformation; they shook hands all round and swore friendship in a final glass of port. Then Brown, as a kind of thankoffering and peace offering combined, offered a cigar to his father and to the other general. As they lit their cigars simultaneously both weeds went off with a bang. He had quite forgotten that he had put in some trick ones to get a rise out of a friend.
That did for him, and he took the next ship to New Zealand. There he managed to become a Police Officer and was doing well when a murder case occurred in which an acquaintance of his had been killed by some unknown Maoris.
With a posse of police he was hastening to the spot when in the bush he came across three or four natives wearing the clothes of the murdered man.
On the principle of "bis dat qui cito dat" he arrested them and shot them then and there without further trial. For which smartness he was evacuated out of the police.
Then he drifted to South Africa where he went through a marvellous string of adventures in Kaffir wars and at the gold diggings, and had finally come under the notice of that celebrated South African fighter, Frederick Carrington, who had put him in charge of this native levy.
I found him a delightful companion during that little campaign.
Years later, when in England, I saw a paragraph in the paper to the effect that a Colonel Brown had fallen on evil days and was being taken care of by the Salvation Army in the East End of London. I went to see him and found that it was my old friend, down and out with fever and old age, but still smiling. And he had reason to smile, for a lady, a generous friend of the Salvation Army, hearing of his plight came to visit him frequently, and in the end he married her and lived happily ever after.
THE BALLROOM STAIRCASE
Different small columns were sent through the country so soon as all organised resistance was at an end, to clear up and collect surrenders and arms. Here and there were little scraps but as a rule the Usutus gave in readily.
When accompanying one of these reconnaissances for rounding up cattle I came to the edge of a high cliff overgrown with thick bush.
While peering down into the valley below to see what had become of some enemy Scouts whom we were following up, my orderly suddenly called out: "Look out, sir, behind you."
I jumped round and there stood a splendid figure of a Zulu warrior, in all the glory of glistening brown skin and the white plumed head-dress from which the Usutu had their nickname of "Tyokobais."
With his great shield of ox-hide and his bright assegais he made a fine picture. He had popped up from under the brow of the cliff to get me, but finding another with me he did not stop to argue but sprang down into cover again. I could see him and another running and scrambling along a sort of track on the face of the bluff, and I kept along above them with my pistol ready, and before long they crossed a bit of open rock-face giving me a chance
But I didn’t take it. I wanted to see where they were making for, and very soon they disappeared into what was evidently the mouth of a cave. My particular friend caught his shield in a bush in the course of his flight and rather than be delayed left it there.
So, accompanied by my orderly, I went down the path and got the shield.
Following the path along I presently found that in place of a cave there was a deep crevice or gully in the cliff face which ran right down to the plain below.
As I looked down into this a strange sight met my eyes. The gully was packed with the brown faces, with rolling eyes and white teeth, of hundreds of women and children, refugees hiding from us. Down below, nearest to the plain, were crowds of warriors, evidently waiting for an attack from that direction. I had come in at the back door!
I made my Basuto orderly call to the Usutus that fighting was all over now and that no harm would be done to them if they surrendered quietly, and in my heart of hearts I warmly hoped they would. Just then our flanking party turned up moving along the base of the cliff, and this helped them to make up their minds, which had been pretty well joggled up by our unexpected appearance also at the back door. So they called "Pax."
Then I made my way down through them. The women seemed to think that this was the beginning of slaughter and began screaming and pushing to get out of my reach. In the struggle a small brown imp fell off a rock on which he had been put so I naturally picked him up and replaced him, giving him something to play with. This had a miraculous effect; the hubbub died down; remarks were passed from mouth to mouth and I was able to squeeze down among them without further trouble.
One of my fellows below, seeing me doing this, shouted: "What is it like there?" To which I replied: "Just like the squash at a London ball"; from which bright remark the gully came to be known as the Ballroom Staircase.
Eventually Dinizulu took refuge in his stronghold, the Ceza Bush. Had he held out here we should have had a tough job in taking it, consisting as it did of a mass of boulders, bush and caves, all over a steep mountain side.
As it was he decamped, and a few days later came in and surrendered.
JOHN DUNN AT HOME
Before leaving Zululand at the conclusion of the operations I paid a visit that was full of interest to the home of that great hunter and chieftain, John Dunn. Mangate, as it is called, consisted of three houses close together, in a nice garden. He lived in one house and another was occupied by a detachment of his wives and children.
We saw several of them. The ladies were black, being the daughters of various royal chiefs whom as a Chief he had to marry. They were all dressed in European clothes. The children were half-caste and in many cases practically white. He had a school there for them run by a white schoolmistress.
Dunn possessed two other places, Inyazone and Ingoya.
We dined at about 6.30. The only servant was a naked Zulu who donned a short—very short singlet for the occasion. Dunn seemed very quiet and rather sad and also a little deaf. But he could see and enjoy a joke when one was on the tapis. His quick clear eye was a noticeable feature.
I read part of his autobiography after dinner. It was very interesting to read of the amount of game that he used to see in the country which we had been over and where we had scarcely seen a head.
John Dunn, in spite of his much-married state, was a very religious man and very Scotch!
THE END 0F THE SHOW
The campaign as a whole was another example of the futility of divided authority between Civil and Military authorities when once military force has been called in.
So far as we soldiers were concerned it was a useful experience at any rate to the young officers, among whom were the future Field Marshal Lord Allenby (Inniskilling Dragoons), General Sir M. Rimington (ditto), and General Sir Archibald Murray.
For myself I thoroughly enjoyed the outing and it brought me not only valuable experience but also promotion, because when the authorities continued to object that I could not hold the position of Military Secretary since I was but a Captain, the General replied that as I had carried out the duties on active service I was evidently fully qualified and that therefore, to meet the difficulty, they had better make me a Major which they did!
Thus for the fourth time I was promoted before my time; and people say there is no such thing as luck!
After South Africa I was for three years Military Secretary and Intelligence Officer at Malta; a very fascinating job.
Then, stationed in Ireland with my Regiment, I sprang a bomb upon myself which had powerful repercussions upon my career.
At a field day I sent some of my men to tow branches of trees along a dusty road, in order to draw the attention of the enemy while I captured his guns.
The trick came off all right, but had been observed by the Commander-in-chief, Lord Wolseley, and to my alarm I was sent for by him. I expected summary dismissal from the Service for playing the fool, but to my surprise he highly commended me for the ruse.
Shortly afterwards he sent for me to the War Office and told me he had selected me to go to the West Coast of Africa to raise and command a native contingent for the Ashanti Expedition.
"Not that it is a Cavalry Service," he explained, "but one where you can use your wits."
Copyright © Lewis P. Orans, 1998