Isandlwana: Richard Walford’s View

The battlefield; the “Ditch”; Mounted men retreating; Zulu warriors dealing with the dead.

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Before Isandlwana ◄ ● ► Starting the War

Natal at this stage, in 1878, was headed towards war with the Zulu kingdom. Natal had been annexed by the British in 1845 replacing an erstwhile Boer republic which had been established following the Boers’ defeat of the Zulu king, Dingane, in 1838. Dingane was replaced by his brother Mpande in 1840. Mpande and the British settled their territorial ambitions by agreeing that the Thukela (Tugela) River and its northern tributary, the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River, would be the border between Zululand and Natal. Mpande had died in 1872 and been succeeded by his son, Cetshwayo, who had sought to maintain friendly relations with the British.

By 1875, however, the British led by Lord Carnarvon, the Colonial Secretary, had adopted a policy of working to unify the states of southern Africa into a confederation. He had been encouraged to this position by Theophilus Shepstone, the Secretary for Native Affairs in the Natal administration. The new High Commissioner at the Cape, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, embraced this desire for confederation, and, ominously, decided that this would be best achieved by the destruction of the Zulu Kingdom.

Frere and Shepstone orchestrated matters culminating in a set of demands that amounted to an ultimatum that expired at midnight on 10 January 1879. The British crossed into Zululand early in the morning of 11 January 1879. Eleven days later they were destroyed at Isandlwana.

In letters to his family, Richard Walford provided a description of these events from the perspective of a lowly Police Trumpeter. The letters survive because they were sent to local newspapers who published them. The first was written a few days after the battle and was sent to a number of newspapers by one of his brothers, probably Charles Richard. The different newspapers edited the letter in different ways so this is an amalgamation across them. It is reproduced as it was written with words included that are not generally acceptable today: 11  

Helpmakaar [sic], 27th January, 1879.

I cannot find words to thank God for His merciful guidance in sparing me to be able to write to you. I am almost afraid to tell you the dreadful news I know, but I think it is better to let you know all. I will commence from the day of our entrance to Zululand. It took two or three days for all of our column to cross over the river. There was not a Zulu to be seen for some distance. Patrolling parties were sent out, and they came back with a lot of cattle and said there were not any niggers [sic] to be seen.

We pitched our camp over the river, and stayed there some time. On Sunday, the 12th January, the outposts reported the enemy in great force at the back of the hill in the distance. We all turned out, but only saw a few of them. The infantry halted on one side of the hill, and we went to the other. Then we saw them following us. We did not think they meant to do anything, so we went right close to them, and when we were about 100 yards off they fired on us. We all dismounted and let them have it. They hid away in the stones; we turned them out and killed most of them. That is the greater part of that affair.

I must now go on to the most dreadful case.

We were ordered to move the camp further up into the country, so we went 10 or 12 miles and pitched camp again. The next day patrolling parties, in fact the greater part of the camp, went out. I could not go: my horse was sick. A message came in that they had seen the enemy, and were going to be out all night, so we sent biscuits and great coats out to them.

The next morning our camp outposts came and reported the enemy in sight again. We had only about 600 men in camp altogether. Well, we all formed up ready for action, and at that time seven or eight Zulus came in and gave up their arms. The Colonel let them go. Soon after that we saw the hill black with them coming on in swarms. They were estimated at 20,000.

We went out and held a ditch as long as possible, until we were outnumbered. The order was given to get into camp. Well we got there. I went all over the place for a gun, but could not get one; my revolver was broken. I stopped in camp as long as possible, and saw one of the most horrid sights that I ever wish to see. The Zulus were in the camp ripping our men up, and also the tents and everything they came across, with their assegais. They were not content with killing, but were ripping the men up afterwards. Never has such a disaster happened to the English army. There were no means for sending to the General, who was out of the camp.

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 [ford], 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.

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. I have not told all of it, as I have not time or paper; I will write again the first opportunity.

I do not think the people of Natal will let us cross the border again. There were 537 of the 24th Regiment killed in camp, and 26 of us and several others, so you can imagine what it was. The Zulus have all our wagons, with stores and ammunition.

There will be an awful row at home about this.

The second letter was written a few weeks later and reflects a calmer, more considered view of the events. It appears to have been written to his father, but the recipient’s name was omitted by the editor: 12  

Natal Mounted Police Camp, Helpmakaar [sic], Feb. 15, 1879.

My dear _____,

You will see by the heading of my letter that we have been driven back to our starting place by the Zulus, and to tell you the truth, I feel ashamed to own it. I have written home twice since the awful day, 22nd January, but I will give you an account all to yourself. I will commence from the start, from the first camp the other side of the river.

We left Rorke’s Drift camp, that is the name of the drift where we crossed over the Buffalo river, which divides Natal from Zululand, on the 19th January to advance about twelve miles into the country. It was a pretty sight to see the column going along, the waggons stretching over five miles, besides the troops. My little horse was sick that day, so I had to walk and lead him all the way. I was very tired when I came to the end of the journey; it was a broiling hot day. Well, we got to the place for camping, right in the centre of two hills, a very bad place indeed, and we pitched camp, and had a good sleep that night.

The next morning, most of our men went out patrolling, and were to return the same evening, but about tea-time an order came in that they had seen the enemy out a good distance from the camp, and that they were going to stay out all night, so we sent out their food and great coats.

Early the next morning the General took out most of the column with him, leaving in camp about 800 white men and several native contingents, and two big guns. This was the morning of the 22nd.

Well, about 9 o’clock the men of our corps who were out on out-post duty, came in and reported the enemy in sight. We all turned out ready for action. We saw a few of them come to the top of a big hill to our left, but they went away again.

Then they sent some mounted niggers [sic] up the hill to see what it was. Presently we heard heavy firing over in that direction, then we saw these mounted men retiring slowly, closely followed by swarms of Zulus. Then they came down in heaps, you could not see the grass for them. The fight began then properly. I and a few more of us were sent out to skirmish in front of the camp, we kept them at bay for some time, then we had the order to retire to camp, and then they came on in thousands. I got into camp and went all over the place trying to get a rifle; my only weapon (a revolver) was broken, so I had no arms. I could not get any in the camp, so I had to stop there without any.

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 sight in camp was something awful. They were not content with killing the men, but they ripped them up, and mutilated them horribly. They were so disfigured that when the remainder of the column came back they could hardly recognise one of them.

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.

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.

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.

Fancy, there were 16 officers of the 24th Regt., and 3 companies of men cut up, and it was just one day later than the battle of Chilianwallah in 1849 was fought, when 23 officers and 500 rank-and-file of the same Regt. were cut up, as you will see in the paper I send you. It is dreadful to think of, and you can imagine how sick of talking and writing about it I am.

This is the third letter I have written. My watch, I am sorry to say, was spoilt whilst I was swimming across the river, but I have sent it down to be repaired. I must say good-bye, so with love to all, and hoping this dry epistle won’t tire you,

I remain,
Yours ever affectionately,
R. W. Stevens

It is impossible to say how the family reacted to this news. Their lives had gone on as normal. His eldest sister, Emma, was married on 23 January while Richard Walford was huddled tensely and sleeplessly in the laager at Helpmekaar. When the first letter arrived, It must have been a bit of a shock to reflect back to her wedding day.

And he was certainly not wrong about the “awful row at home about this.”

There was, of course, more to it all.

Before Isandlwana ◄ ● ► Starting the War

©Alun Stevens 2023