Many of the small wars of the Victorian era were fought in places where British colonists were attempting to build new lives in proximity to indigenous peoples. This led to hostilities and although regular troops were usually engaged they were often supplemented by locally raised forces. These could be native troops officered by Europeans or bodies of European ‘irregular’ soldiers. These forces were mixed blessings. They often included local settlers, farmers, traders or hunters who knew their enemy and his language and the terrain over which the campaign would be fought; they were usually expert marksmen and horsemen who were able to live off the country. These units also attracted soldiers of fortune and the sweepings of society who—whilst indisputably tough ‘customers’—were notoriously difficult to command. The colony at the tip of southern Africa had been a place of confrontation and conflict since it was established. There had been numerous wars against the so called Kaffir tribes and in 1879 the British Empire determined to neutralise the most significant martial tribe of the region—the Zulus. All those interested in the period are aware of the consequences of that decision. The author of this book has left us a vital account of his time fighting in South Africa with one of these colourful colonial units and his book is, of course, absolutely essential.
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On the 4th of June, while on patrol with Colonel Buller, about 2500 Zulus tried to entrap us, but they were discovered in time, and their attempt failed. On receipt of this intelligence in camp all the horse were ordered out, and the laager surrounded with an earthwork. This force of the enemy was thought to be the advance guard of a larger body. The next day at dawn most of the Irregular Horse of the Flying Column were sent out under Colonel Buller to reconnoitre in advance. A body of lancers and dragoons from General Newdigate’s column following some little time later.<br>
On reaching the place where the ambuscade was laid the day previous, a dark mass of Zulus were seen in the plain below. They were gathered round some large kraals, which proved to be those of Sirayo.<br>
It was a lovely scene we looked down on from the rocky hill where we stood. The morning sun had just risen over the hill opposite us, and shone on the river that ran at its base. Between the river and the hill was a small open plain. The kraals stood in the centre of the plain. The sides of the hill was seamed and torn with dongas, and clothed with mimosa bush. There were some among us who had not seen trees for two months. Far on the left front rose Inhlazatye, gleaming in the morning sun, the great greenstone mountain beyond which the king’s place, our goal, lay. On the right rose Ibabanango, which we were soon to cross. A swarm of Zulus were flitting like bees round the huts below, and we could see some waggons, spoil of Isandula, close to the kraal.<br>
We had plenty of time to see this as we rode down the gentle slope to the river.<br>
With Colonel Buller one is not kept long in suspense; the orders were soon given, “Frontier Light Horse the centre, Baker’s Horse the left, and Whalley’s the right”. The Zulus, in the meantime, had massed and moved off in companies, and taken up a position in the dongas at the foot of the hill. They were sheltered also by the thick cover afforded by the bush and grass. Once across the river, we advanced at a gallop, firing the kraal, the enemy opening fire at once. We rode to within three hundred yards of them; the men dismounted, and the horses were led some few yards out of the hottest of the fire.<br>
The men took cover in the long grass and behind ant-heaps. They fired fairly steadily, but the hill side was covered with aloes, which looked like men among the smoke, and which were often doubtless hit. Colonel Buller was standing on an ant-heap looking through his glass, watching the effects of the fire. This continued some time, till the enemy, trying to outflank us on the right, poured in a volley at some eighty yards from the edge of a mealie field to which they had crept. The order was then given to retire, which was done in good order, and the river was recrossed and the men drawn up on the other side. A war correspondent, who had been lying under an ant-heap and firing away, did not hear the order to retire given, so he was left behind, till the colonel told someone to go back and put him on his horse. From an accident to his leg he was unable to mount, but he was brought off all safely.<br>
Apart from the chance of getting hit, the scene was pretty in the extreme, to see the whole face of the hill dotted with little puffs of white smoke. We had eight or ten men hit, none mortally, and some fifteen horses killed or wounded. The Imperial cavalry had meanwhile come on the scene, and by General Marshall’s order advanced to the attack. It was a grand sight, to do one’s heart good, to see them advancing across the level plain. They crossed the river and then moved forward over the little plain, the Lancers in advance and the King’s Dragoon Guards in support. They took up nearly the same ground as that which we had previously occupied. One could not help being sorry they were sent there; it was a mere waste of life. The enemy were too strongly posted to have any serious damage done to them.<br>
It was hopeless to expect cavalry to turn them out, and the result must inevitably be a retreat. The main object had already been gained, the enemy having shown their strength. The result was the cavalry had to retreat after losing one of their best officers, Lieutenant Frith, their adjutant; they also had a horse or two hit, I believe. They then retired and drew up out of sight of the Zulus, behind a gentle rise. By this concealment the Zulus were to be induced to move out into the plain. The cavalry leaders had however yet to find that Zulus were not to be duped by so transparent a ruse, and the sight of half the lances with the fluttering pennons which stuck up over the brow of the hill too plainly marked the position of the (otherwise) wily lancers. Of course, by all the rules of war, the Zulus should have been drawn out and then cut up, but they are very old-fashioned. Some few crept down the rugged bed of the river and fixed scattered shot at us. We, the Irregulars, in the meantime,, sat and lounged about, the bait of the trap, but they were too wary. To the voice of the charmer, English cavalry general though he was, they would not listen.<br>
Soon the order was given to return home, which was some couple or three miles off, the column having advanced a few miles since we left.