The Escape

The very long way back to camp from the donga; Fugitives’ Trail from the slopes of Isandlwana; Fugitives’ Trail from Ngedla Hill.

YOU ARE HERE: Richard Walford Stevens – Isandlwana ► The Escape

Isandlwana 22 January 1879 ◄ ● ► Back to Policing

The escape from the mayhem of the battle was in two parts. The first, and much more traumatic part, was the escape from the battlefield itself and across the Mzinyathi River into Natal. The second was getting from there to Helpmekaar and securing their position.

In relation to his escape from the camp, Richard Walford said in his first letter:

Well now about myself. I got out of camp somehow, I don’t know how, and went through awful places to get to the Drift, where my horse was taken away from under me, and I was as nearly drowned as could be. I just happened to catch hold of another horse’s tail, which pulled me through.

And in his second:

I was in the camp until the Zulus were in as well, stabbing men right and left, and ripping the tents up with their assegais. They were destroying the second or third tent up the row, when I looked around, and saw a lot of men making their escape, so I thought that as I was of no use in the camp without arms I would go too, so I went.

The way we escaped was something marvellous. I was on a very small grey pony; there was no road, simply the rough ground covered with tremendous stones. I just got through the enemy as they were surrounding us, by the skin of my teeth; another few minutes and I should not have been able to have got through at all.
After that there was a most awful hill to go up, then (worst of all) a precipice to go down – how we got down is a wonder to everybody. Then we came to the River – no end of poor fellows were drowned there.

I went at it; my horse was taken away from under me. I managed to get my feet out of the stirrups somehow and swam for it. I was just being carried away by the current, when I saw a horse swimming in front of me all right, so I caught hold of his tail, and he pulled me through safely. When I got out I saw my pony further down the River standing high and dry, so I got on him and rode on to this place.

The situation in which Richard Walford found himself can be contemplated from this panoramic view of the battlefield taken from the nek just below Mahlabamkhosi. The road in front (east) of Isandlwana (before it swings up to the carpark) more or less marks the front of the various camps as they faced out across the plain. The wagon track was a little further out than the current road up to the carpark and passed just to the far side of the large group of cairns that mark the position of the 1/24th camp near the large tree on the right. The NMP camp was just across the wagon track from there on the near side of the road in a direct line between the camera and the road crossing the “notch” where the solitary white cairn stands. This is the position to which the mounted men retreated.

Panorama of Nek and battlefield from slopes of Mahlabamkhosi.
©Gillian Stevens Symons 2021

Their line of retreat can be appreciated quite well from this vantage point. The red roofs marking Durnford’s position in the donga are visible just beyond the large tree on the right. The current road there is close to where the wagon track was. They would have followed this line back to the camp with the Zulus streaming in across the plain from the heights and amaThutsane on their right and the left horn making for Mahlabamkhosi on their left.

Mehlokazulu described what then occurred:

When the Carbineers [mounted men] reached the camp they jumped off their horses and never succeeded in getting on them again. When they got into the camp, they dismounted, made a stand, and prevented our entering the camp, but things were then getting very mixed and confused – what with the smoke, dust, and intermingling of mounted men, footmen, Zulus and natives, it was difficult to tell who was mounted and who was not. It was a long time before they were overcome – before we finished them. When we did get to them, they died all in one place, altogether. They threw down their guns when their ammunition was done, and then commenced with their pistols, which they used as long as their ammunition lasted; and then they formed a line, shoulder to shoulder and back to back, and fought with their knives.

I repeatedly heard the word “Fire!” given by someone, but we proved too many for them, and killed them all where they stood. When it was all over I had a look at these men, and saw a dead officer, with his arm in a sling and a big moustache, surrounded by dead Carbineers, soldiers, and other men I did not know. (Knight 2010, 408)

The officer with a moustache and his arm in a sling was undoubtedly Durnford. He had joined the mounted men at the camp and reputedly said, “Now, my men, let us see what you can do.” The group included police, infantry, and Carbineers. The place of their defence, that allowed the other mounted men to escape, is that large group of cairns. The number of cairns scattered over this area near the wagon track attests to the ferocity of the battle in this part of the camp.

Those who moved over the nek still had a daunting prospect in front of them. The simplest route for an escape would have been back the way they had come to Rorke’s Drift. This photograph shows the view to the west from the nek at Isandlwana that would have greeted the fleeing men. On the right, the peak of Shiyane at Rorke’s Drift can be seen tantalisingly close against the bright sky, with the road there going around the Ngedla hill much as it did in 1879.

View from Nek towards Rorke’s Drift.
©Alun Stevens 2005

A few did manage to escape via this route, but it was quickly blocked by the Zulu Right Horn pouring off the high ground behind Isandlwana just out of picture on the right. The fugitives were forced to their left towards Mpethe which is the round hill on the left outlined against the silhouette of the Biggarsberg on the horizon. Not all managed even this as is attested by the burial cairns that mark out the line to Mpethe. Many on horseback did not make it through. Those on foot stood no chance. Richard Walford only just “got through … by the skin of my teeth.” The fact that anyone got through was due to the strong defence by those behind them.

In his second letter, Richard Walford also commented that:

My poor little horse was killed, poor boy – I regret that as much as anything, he was such a pet and so affectionate. I should have been on him and got away with him if he had been well; but he had a sickness on him; he was so weak he could not bear the weight of the saddle on him, and he was stabbed going along the road trying to escape.

He had not ridden his horse that day. It was still too sick. It would have been left on the picket line in the Volunteers camp. For his horse to have been stabbed while going along the road to escape, Richard Walford would have had to have released him from the picket line. This would have been a harrowing experience as Troopers Edwards and Whitelaw of the Carbineers described in the Natal Advertiser of 22 January 1929:

A few of us had managed to work our way to the picket lines, where we undid our horses with feverish haste. Every now and then a mounted man rushed past, followed by a hail of flying assegais. One poor fellow got an assegai right in his spine; he rose in his saddle for a moment and then pitched forward, stone dead . . . We made a great effort to get out before it was too late. (Knight 2010, 410)

In the mayhem, Richard Walford would have had to have led his horse out of their camp, onto the wagon track and away. The fact that he saw it stabbed amongst all the confusion, suggests that he was still close to it at the time, either leading it from the horse he was riding or just riding nearby. Whichever it was, the warriors doing the stabbing would have been close to him. A close call. The skin of his teeth.

The following map shows the route that the fugitives took. Richard Walford mentions having to go up the “most awful hill”, Mpethe, but doesn’t say anything about getting across the Manzimnyama stream to reach it. This too was a significant challenge and there are many reports of the difficulties experienced there. Many struggled at the “chasm” that leads down into the Manzimnyama and many were killed in this area. The ground was so rocky that they had to dismount and lead their horses across. They then had the “awful” climb up Mpethe

Map of route taken by the fugitives from the battle.

Having crested the left (southern) peak of Mpethe, they then needed to get down into the bowl on the far side in order to reach what is now referred to as Fugitives’ Drift. This photograph shows the drift and the bowl with the steep cliffs rimming it. Richard Walford’s “(worst of all) precipice.”

View of Fugitives’ Drift from Natal bank of Mzinyathi.
©Alun Stevens 2005

The photograph was taken in early February 2005, i.e. at much the same time of year as the battle, and there had been a lot of rain over the previous week so the river was flowing quite strongly as can be seen. The river in 1879, was probably even more in flood because the rains reported in the historic accounts seem rather more intense than they were in 2005.

The crossing was challenging because of the volume and speed of the water – and the Zulus trying to kill everyone. Richard Walford was washed off his “very small grey pony” which swam off. There are then, surprisingly, three different accounts of what happened to him. In his letters, Richard Walford simply says that he caught the tail of another horse which pulled him across, found his original horse standing on the Natal bank, got on it, and rode off.

Holt, in his book, The Mounted Police of Natal, has a different version:

Scarcely a single person on foot reached the Buffalo River alive. The river was in flood, but the Zulus pressed hard behind, and there was no time to look for a ford. Each man dashed into the stream as he reached it. Trumpeter Stevens, of the police, was washed off his horse, which swam across. The trumpeter owed his life to a native constable, who caught the animal and bravely took it back, enabling Stevens to cross the river before the Zulus attacked him. (Holt 1913, 62)

Another, more florid, account was presented by Colonel C.W. Lewis in a radio interview in 1939:

Mr. Stevens, ex-trumpeter, told me his story last Sunday … he lost his horse in the river, and when he had swum to the other side, found that it had been collared by a native who was making off with it. And it was only by threatening him with his revolver that he regained his mount. Later, on examining his revolver, he found that the chamber was missing, having been knocked out by a rock in the river and rendering it utterly useless. It was fortunate that the native did not notice it! ((Lewis 1939)

Colonel Lewis was the Chairman of the Old Natal Mounted Police and Natal Police Association.

This is all rather confusing. Richard Walford is variously described as being pulled across by a stray horse, crossing on his own horse that had been brought back to him, and swimming across unaided by a horse. Holt’s description seems unlikely. A black constable could have possibly returned his horse to him, but Richard Walford would have surely remembered it a mere five days later when writing home to his family, because of the significant courage that would have been required. Also, the task of spotting an escaped horse, catching it, and swimming it back to its owner who was being swept along by a fast-flowing river is improbable.

Lewis’s account was given in 1939 and was undoubtedly associated with the 60th anniversary of the battle that year. This would appear to be an embellished tale told by an old man. A story that had got richer with repeated retelling over the years while the specifics of what he had written in 1879 had got dimmer. He was supposedly surprised to find the chamber of his revolver missing despite, by his own account, having been fossicking around the camp for a rifle a short time earlier specifically because his revolver was broken! It is impossible to believe that he had somehow forgotten the broken revolver in the short time since escaping the camp especially because he remembered it five days later and three weeks after that.

The description penned in late January 1879 with the emotional memories fresh in his mind would seem the one most likely to be the correct one.

Having crossed into Natal, and on a horse, the question would have been how to get away. Richard Walford does not enlighten us. He simply said that he rode to Helpmekaar. There were a few potential routes. Those who had managed to get through to Rorke’s Drift, took the road back to Helpmekaar. There was also a Bridle Path which was used by some along a spur of the Biggarsberg that runs from Rorke’s Drift to Helpmekaar. These routes would have been unattractive to those who crossed at Fugitives’ Drift because of the Zulu Right Horn coming in from that direction.

Map showing routes Helmekaar from Fugitives’ Drift.

Fortunately, once they had climbed the high ground on the Natal bank of the Mzinyathi, they would have had a fairly direct route to Helpmekaar along the Isibindi River valley. The country is fairly open, not particularly steep and readily traversable by someone on a horse. The approximately 20km trip would have been a tense one with worries about the warriors behind them and the memories of their capabilities, but not a difficult one. This would seem to be the most likely route taken by Richard Walford and the eight other Natal Mounted Police who managed to escape – out of the 34 who had been in camp.


Richard Walford said a little of what took place in the immediate aftermath of the battle and the next few weeks. In his first letter he was very brief:

Thus we came on to this place and threw up a fortification, and here I am, thanks to the Almighty, all safe as yet, and I hope to see you all again yet.

In his second, he added:

We made what they call a laarger of the waggons – that is, the waggons are put so they form a square, and I spent two nights watching for the enemy, and I had no sleep; then the remainder of the column came up, and I can tell you we felt greatly relieved. We have been stationed up here ever since – it is most unhealthy. It is a small laarger, with about 11,000 men in it – bad water and weather, and you can imagine the amount of sickness there is – there is an average daily of about 500 men who see the doctor with dysentery and rheumatism.

I am happy to say I have been pretty well up to the present, but I can feel rheumatism coming on in all my joints. The Zulus have taken every thing away from us. I have only what I stand up in. When I go to wash my short or socks, I have to sit on the bank and smoke until they get dry – there is one thing to be said, when the sun is out it does not take long.

Our winter months are just beginning to come on, and we shall have it awfully cold up here, 7,000 feet above the level of the sea. Our waggons have just come up with our outfits, so we shall jog along a little better now.

The survivors had straggled into Helpmekaar over the course of the afternoon and evening of 22 January. The camp was undefended because the two companies of the 1/24th that had remained there had headed off towards Rorke’s Drift. The camp was also unfortified. Three corrugated iron sheds and two huts full of supplies, intended to go forward to the column, had been left standing on the open grass with no attempt having been made to entrench them. Captain Edward Essex sought to remedy this when he arrived from the river. He was a staff officer of the 75th Regiment who had played a frenetic part in trying to direct the defence at Isandlwana before escaping. In a letter published in The Times on 12 April 1879 he commented:

I was the senior officer present, so I took the command and caused some wagons to be drawn up at a short distance all round the storehouse, a zinc building, quite indefensible. I had sacks of oats placed under the wagons, and now had a barrier. We mustered, of those who escaped, about 25 Europeans; the others, about ten volunteers and camp followers, continuing their retreat. A few others, such as owners of wagons, two or three farmers with their wives and children, now arrived, and my little garrison numbered 48 men, of whom, however, only 28 had rifles. We expected the approach of the Zulus every moment, but we had plenty of ammunition, and I told every one to fire away as hard as he could in the event of an attack, so as to deceive the enemy as to the number with whom he had to deal. (Knight 2010, 513)

For those who stayed at Helpmekaar, including a small group of police, it was a tense night. They could see fires in the Mzinyathi valley, potentially the Zulu army, and could hear the distant artillery fire that Chelmsford had laid down when he returned to the devastated camp at Isandlwana. The garrison stood to several times at the barricades, but the situation became less tense when the two companies of the 1/24th returned. They had seen the burning hospital at Rorke’s Drift and had concluded that it too had fallen so decided to turn around.

At daybreak, the garrison was surprised by a body of NNC men (also escapees from Isandlwana) looming out of the mist on the road. The significance of their arrival was being debated when, at about 9.30 a.m., a black messenger ran up with a message from John Chard to say that Rorke’s Drift had held and asking for assistance.

Chelmsford’s column had spent the night camped amongst the dead at Isandlwana. A fraught and harrowing experience according to the accounts written by those who were there. The next morning, they moved to Rorke’s Drift retracing the path they had followed a few days earlier with great trepidation. They passed what they assumed to be the victorious uThulwana ibutho withdrawing back into Zululand, with neither side keen to engage the other, and so were stunned to find that Rorke’s Drift had not been overwhelmed.

Chelmsford’s force spent the day cleaning up and burying the dead. He decided that the bulk of the force would need to stay at Rorke’s Drift to prevent the Zulus making a strike into Natal, but the following day, 24 January, he rode off to Pietermaritzburg taking an artillery battery and the mounted men with him. These stayed at Helpmekaar – to Richard Walford’s great relief.

Conditions at Helpmekaar were challenging. They initially formed a wagon laager around the store sheds. This was converted into an earth work surrounded by a moat in which stagnant water gathered. The troops crammed into this ‘fort’ each night. Clothing and blankets were in very short supply which increased the hardship. The men had no shelter from the sun during the day and at night they bedded down in the mud with rotting oats and maize in the store adding to the unpleasantness. A number of men succumbed to the inevitable diseases brought on by the unsanitary conditions including one of Richard Walford’s fellow NMP escapees from Isandlwana, Trooper W. Hayes.

The residents of Ladysmith tried to assist by sending a wagon load of clothes, food and other luxuries for the police and volunteers. But it was not until the middle of February, as reported by Richard Walford in his second letter, that tents, blankets and uniforms arrived from Pietermaritzburg for the police. These provided some relief. The tents were pitched during the day, but the poles were pulled down at night and the men entered the laager.

There is no direct commentary from Richard Walford after this point, but other records do give details of the activities of the police during the remainder of the war. Richard Walford would have undoubtedly taken part in some of them, but we are left to speculate which ones because there are very few records of participants.

Isandlwana 22 January 1879 ◄ ● ► Back to Policing

©Alun Stevens 2023

One comment

  • An entertaining and informative post. Experiencing what an ordinary person does as opposed to well-documented
    important historical figures in history books brings the whole frightening experience to life and a greater understanding of what it was like.

Leave a Reply