A complex and controversial Victorian’s account of war
It is fatal to project the attitudes of the modern (or any) age onto those of another time or to view historical events from any perspectives other than that of those who took part in them. It is a difficult discipline for the modern reader to master and, perhaps inevitably, history is evaluated from our own moral standpoint irrespective of whether that would in itself ultimately stand up to any kind of scrutiny. There have been many appalling acts in modern warfare that are equal to those atrocities in the past that we may be inclined to ‘understand’ as being the result of ‘savagery’ or lack of enlightenment. The nineteenth century wars against the Xhosa tribes of South Africa could be as savage as any fought and there can be little doubt that imperial powers could use methods verging on genocide when they decided to take over the lands and resources of underdeveloped people. Equally, a savage foe inevitably fought a savage war and Kaffir and Zulu warriors were not given to taking prisoners. This book is by and concerns the experiences of Steven Lakeman in the wars by the British crown and settlers against the Kaffir tribes in Cape Colony in the 1850s. Lakeman was a mercenary adventurer, soldier and administrator, and it was widely recognised that his command, the Waterkloof Rangers, waged war in a fashion brutal to the point of criminality by modern standards. Some of his matter of fact statements concerning the activities of his men—and indeed his own actions—will be troubling to contemporary sensibilities, while being essential reading for those who wish to understand both the events reported and those who took part in them. Lakeman was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1853. He went on to play a pivotal role in the Victorian age both in war and as a diplomat. He was one of the earliest proponents for the discontinuation of the iconic scarlet uniform of the British soldier and its replacement with khaki and he campaigned vigorously for the introduction of the Minie rifle to replace smooth bore muskets.
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The next day, after a somewhat tiring ascent, we crowned the heights of the Waterkloof, without firing a shot or seeing many Kaffirs. I was then ordered to attack the Horse-shoe—a half-circular line of bush that fringed the precipitous heights. This was a difficult task, from the formation of the ground and the disheartening reminiscences, it was murmured, which were attached to the spot. Here it was that Colonel Fordyce had been lately killed, and the 74th fearfully handled. The Honourable R C——, the staff officer who ordered the movement, pointed in a somewhat vague manner to the centre of the half-moon as the place on which I was to begin the attack.<br>
This undefined indication left me a considerable margin; so I managed, in the mile of ground I had to cover before coming within range of the Kaffir guns, to oblique so much to the right, that I came very near that end of the Horse-shoe. As I got within range, my men being in very loose order (this being their first engagement, there was naturally some hesitation and wavering along the line), a shot fired by some good marksman on the enemy’s side, brought my orderly, David McIntyre, to the ground with a ball through the chest.<br>
The whole line stopped as if struck by an electric shock. Another shot as effective as the last would, I felt sure, send them to the right-about; so I ran to the front and shouted out, “We shall all be shot if we remain here in the open! To the bush, my lads! to the bush!”<br>
The sense of this order was obvious. We shouted “Hurrah!” as much to drown our own fears as to frighten the enemy; and amidst a rattling fire, more noisy than dangerous, we, for safety’s sake, gallantly charged the foe. The Kaffirs and Hottentots were evidently taken by surprise at this display of gallantry—latterly all the charges had been on their side. The tables were turned, and instead of red-jackets, it was for black-skins to fall back.<br>
Once in the bush, what with cheering and firing, we kept up such a hullabaloo, that the niggers must have thought all the white devils of Christendom were let loose upon them. I, who knew where the row came from, was astonished at the effect upon my own nerves, as the adjoining rocks reverberated the sound of our advance. We literally chased the foe like rabbits through the bush, and came out at the other end of the Horse-shoe, rather disappointed than otherwise in not meeting with more resistance. We then fell back on the main body, having performed our task with a decided dash and very slight loss—two killed and five wounded.<br>
As we were quite unmolested by the foe, it was admirable to see the cool, collected manner in which my men retired—in fact, I was not at all astonished when General Napier sent a staff officer to thank us for our gallant and orderly bearing. We now proceeded to breakfast, and had hardly begun, when the same officer came back and told me to advance with my men and endeavour to dislodge the Kaffirs from some rough boulders of rock on the edge of the kloof, some two miles on our left. Now this order was unadvisable for many reasons: from the lie of the ground it had no strategical importance; it neither threatened the enemy’s stronghold, nor in any way interfered with movements we might make to carry it.<br>
My men had had a long march, which, combined with the efforts in clearing out the Horse-shoe, had left us without any physical energy; whilst there were whole battalions who had not fired a shot, and were eager for an opportunity to distinguish themselves.<br>
I, however, kept these reasonings to myself; and giving the men orders to prepare for action, they sprang to their feet with far more alacrity than I had a right to expect.<br>
In going to take up the ground assigned to us as the point of attack, we passed in front of the main body, and the general came up and shook hands with me. This cheering token sent us on in good spirits to within about a thousand yards of the rocks above named. I here sent a small detachment down a slope of ground that led somewhat to our left, to threaten, if possible, the flank and rear of the position in our front.<br>
With the rest of the men I obliqued slightly to the right, with the same object of turning the rear in that direction also.<br>
We had advanced about half-way when the guns of Captain Rowley’s battery opened fire over our heads. This caused considerable uneasiness; the men were not accustomed to the hurling noise rushing over their heads from the rear: some ducked, some stopped, others went on; and the line, which hitherto had been so well kept, assumed a most zigzag, mob-looking appearance.<br>
I have often observed that even veterans waver and become confused under this meteor-discharge overhead. The Kaffirs, however, did not seem to be much frightened by the shot or the shell. They fielded for the cannon-shot as they rebounded from the rocks as though they were cricket-balls. These same balls were much prized as pestles for grinding purposes.<br>
As for the shells, they no sooner burst than, in derision, the Kaffirs picked pieces up and pretended to throw them back at us. But now a rocket that was intended to astonish the Kaffirs came so close over us, that the whole line started and ducked their heads in the most ridiculous fashion. This profound salaam, as we faced the foe, elicited from them a tremendous shout of approval in return. I profited by this humility of ours, and as my fellows had their faces so close to the ground, I ordered them to lie down altogether. “Raise the sighting on the rifles for six hundred yards. Take steady aim. Fire!”