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The Mounted Police of Natal

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The Mounted Police of Natal
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Author(s): H. P. Holt
Date Published: 2010/11
Page Count: 312
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-386-1
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-385-4

Fighting and policing on the veldt and in the bush

In parts of the globe during the nineteenth century, particularly those quarters incrementally being coloured red by the growth of the British Empire, many new police forces were formed and their services were as varied as their locations and the native peoples who populated them dictated. Sometimes that meant the activities of the force were virtually military for long periods of time and they were always certainly far removed from the duties of a ‘Bobby’ of the home country in every way. Never was this more true than for the subject of this book, ‘The Mounted Police of Natal.’ Formed in 1874 in South Africa it came into being at a time of violence and unrest with which it was involved until the eve of the Great War. Wars and uprisings among the Kaffir tribes of the Cape were raging long before the creation of the NMP, but, naturally, they immediately became embroiled. Everyone who knows of the period is aware of how in 1879 war against the Zulu nation broke out and shook the security of the colony to the core. Brave men of the NMP fought against and died under the assegais of the Zulu impis at Isandlwhana and in many other bloody engagements related in these pages. This riveting account goes on to describe the part played by the force in two Boer Wars, various tribal uprisings, the Zulu Rebellion of 1906 as well as the activities of lone policemen whose ‘beat’ covered hundreds of square miles and who had to deal with smugglers, witchcraft and murders in remote corners of the empire. This is a highly readable and comprehensive work and is recommended. Available in softcover and hardcover with dustjacket for collectors.

They covered a considerable extent of the country during the morning

without getting a glimpse of the enemy, and after midday met the

Native Contingent, under Colonel Lonsdale. The troopers off-saddled

for a while, and then received sudden orders to move in an easterly

direction, away from the main camp, where small bodies of the enemy

had been reported. On a ridge near the Isipezi Mountain a few Zulus

were seen, whereupon the force dismounted, while Inspector Mansel,

with a small number of police, Sergeant-Major Royston, and a few of

the carbineers, galloped out to reconnoitre.<br>
It was soon seen that the enemy were there in large numbers, for they

opened out until they covered the whole ridge, and dashed down the

hill in an attempt to surround Inspector Mansel’s party, who,

however, wheeled back and escaped the impi. A trooper named Parsons,

in attempting to load his revolver, accidentally discharged the

weapon. His horse shied and he fell off. As a reward he was sent back

to camp in disgrace, the incident causing a good deal of merriment.

Parsons was killed during the attack on the camp the next day.<br>
The impi returned to the ridge when the reconnoitring party escaped

from them, and Major Dartnell decided not to make an attack with

mounted men alone, the Native Contingent being reported by Colonel

Lonsdale to be too tired and hungry to be relied upon. It was

afterwards discovered that the enemy had contemplated rushing down on

the British force, but hesitated to do so because they thought the

Native Contingent, most of whom wore red coats, were Europeans.<br>
In order not to lose touch with the Zulus, Major Dartnell decided to

bivouac with the police, volunteers, and Native Contingent on the

ground he had taken up, and two staff officers, Major Gosset and

Captain Buller, returned to the main camp to report the presence of

the enemy and ask approval of the bivouac. In many accounts of the

Zulu war it is stated that he appealed for reinforcements, but this

is incorrect. He had decided to attack the impi at dawn, adding that

a company or two of the 24th Regiment might instil confidence in the

Native Contingent, but whether they came or not the attack would be

made at 6 a.m.<br>
The promised hot dinner having long gone cold, far away, the men had

a cheerless prospect. They were without blankets, and the night was

bitterly cold. Moreover, there was the ever-constant dread of a

surprise attack. The troopers hitched up their belts, and bids up to

ten shillings were made for a single biscuit; but nobody had any to

sell. The horses were linked, one man in each section of fours being

left on guard over them, and the Native Contingent provided outlying

In several ways it was a night never to be forgotten. Captain Davy,

adjutant of volunteers, had gone back to the camp, and it was

anxiously hoped that he would return with some food. He returned late

at night with a very inadequate supply of provisions, which quickly

Quietness reigned during the early hours of the night, but just

before the ’witching hour a shot was fired by one of the outlying

pickets. Instantly there was terrible confusion. The whole Native

Contingent, consisting of 1600 men, stampeded into the bivouac,

rattling their shields and assegais. The sudden awakening from sleep,

the din, the hoarse cries of the natives, the knowledge that a large

body of the enemy was in the vicinity, the difficulty of

distinguishing friend from foe in the darkness, and the confusion

that invariably follows a stampede, would have been sufficient to

startle the best troops in the world. The natives crouched down near

the white men for protection, and for a time nobody knew what had

caused the panic.<br>
The wonder is that many of the native soldiers were not shot by the

white troopers. The discipline of colonial troops has rarely been put

to a more severe test. The small body of police and volunteers, miles

away from support, fell in quietly and quickly, and remained

perfectly steady.<br>
Some of the natives declared that an impi had passed close to the

bivouac, and was going to make an attack. The troopers were ordered

out to the brow of the hill to feel for the enemy. Suddenly shots

began to ring out, and bullets whizzed past the white men. The scared

Native Contingent, blundering again, had opened fire on the troopers,

who were not sorry to get the order to retire. It was so dark that

the force would have been practically helpless had a large impi

rushed down on them, and the majority of them never expected to see

daylight again; but the Zulus did not come, and the natives were with

difficulty driven to their own bivouac.<br>
A couple of hours afterwards the weary troopers were awakened by

another similar panic, and again shots were sent flying by the

natives, who almost got beyond control. Their officers and their

European non-commissioned officers were so disgusted that they spent

the rest of the night with the police.<br>
The experience was a striking proof of the unreliability of

undisciplined native troops in the hour of danger. It is a wonder

that the whole force was not exterminated, for from what Mehlogazulu,

a son of Sirayo, afterwards told General Wood, it appeared that the

chiefs of the neighbouring impi decided to postpone such an easy task

until they had first “eaten up” the main camp.<br>
There were many pale, haggard faces when daylight broke on the

morning of the eventful 22nd January. The colonial troops were not

destined to fight a battle on their own account, for at 6 a.m. Lord

Chelmsford joined them with Mounted Infantry, four guns of the Royal

Artillery, and six companies of the 24th Regiment. <br><br>


A large number of Zulus were on the surrounding heights watching the

skirmish, and judging by the manner in which they were seen moving

through the forest, they had not anticipated the force going down the

Bobe Ridge, but had thought they would keep on the main road to

Nkandhla, where an attack had been contemplated. It was quite clear

that the troops were surrounded, because there was a good deal of

sniping from every direction, particularly at the rear, where the

Durban Light Infantry were firing for some time.<br>
The enemy were not pursued, and, having cleared their front, the men

turned towards Fort Yolland. They crossed a stream which flows into

the Insuzi, and after many of them had had a refreshing draught a

number of dead Zulus were discovered in the water. These were

evidently men who, having been wounded, had crawled away to die.<br>
While everybody was crowded into the stream it was noticed that the

natives were coming down the hills. They advanced in twos and threes

until they got within range, and then started sniping. The rear-

guard, which was now composed of Natal Police, fired back, and the

Zulus disappeared for a time. It had been decided to bivouac for the

night, but the position was so unsafe that, though everybody was

thoroughly exhausted, and night had come on, the order was given to

march back to Fort Yolland—a dozen miles away. The infantrymen were

almost in a state of collapse after the day’s hard work, and most of

the mounted men gave up their horses to those who had none.<br>
While one spruit was being crossed two troopers, who were the last

men in the rear-guard, had an experience which was somewhat

unnerving. The path down to the stream was narrow, the men being

hemmed in by bush until they could only go two abreast. The long

procession took a tremendous time to get over the spruit, and while

the men were crossing the two troopers had the unenviable task of

standing alone at the top of the path leading down to the drift, with

bayonets fixed. There was no room for anyone else, so the rest of the

rear-guard went on and were a score yards away awaiting their turn to

get over the spruit.<br>
Meanwhile the Zulus crept up unseen and unheard, until the two men

heard the peculiar guttural war-cry quite close to them in the trees,

and a shot was fired. Fortunately it missed. All the time they

remained at their post the two men knew that the natives might get

through the bush on to the path leading to the spruit, and cut them

off hopelessly. The sniping was kept up with painful regularity. One

Zulu appeared to have a .303 rifle. They could hear him moving about

in the bush, and distinguished the crack of his weapon from that of

the other old elephant guns and muzzle-loaders when he fired. The two

troopers were particularly pleased when the moment came for them to

hurry on after the rest of the rear-guard.<br>
At a donga a little farther on the dozen Natal Police, who still

constituted the rear-guard, came upon a Maxim pack-horse, with two or

three men trying to readjust its burden. The little body of police

helped them, all the time dropping farther and farther behind the

procession. The delay lasted ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, and

they had no idea how far off the main body were, for there was dead

silence, save for the crackling of a kraal which had been set on

fire. As the flames shot up the party in the donga found themselves

in a brilliant glare, giving the snipers an excellent opportunity to

practise shooting.

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