The Western Times, Saturday, June 21, 1879
THE SCENE AT ISANDULA
Mr. Archibald Forbes, who accompanied General Marshall on his visit to Isandula, sends a graphic account of what he witnessed on the scene of our great disaster:-
RORKE’S DRIFT, May 21, Evening. – A telegram has informed you of the intention to penetrate to Isandhlwana from [t]his point by a cavalry brigade and the dispositions therefor. The right wing of the Lancers, under Lowe, and two guns under Colonel Harness, left Landsman’s Drift yesterday on the march to the bivouac at Rorke’s Drift. As the detachment approached the latter place it crowned a ridge. On the plain below was visible a beautiful spectacle. The rest of the brigade marching from its bivouac of the previous night, was advancing deployed in successive waves, each wave some distance apart. In each line were three squadrons, one of the blue-clad Lancers, and dancing pennons in the centre, and on the left flank one squadron of red-coated dragoons. The force was working in rank entire, which in practice enlarges a cavalry brigade into a cavalry division, and the lines were moving at a sharp trot over the flat but very rough country, the big English horses negotiating the rocks, boulders, holes and dongas with great agility.
The cavalry bivouac was on the table land close to the new Fort Melville, where the Rorke’s Drift garrison is now quartered, and in full view of the old fort, the scene of the memorable defence of January 22. Many make pilgrimage to the spot now historical, and wonder with admiration glowing in their hearts, how a handful of soldiers, however stout-hearted, could have held a position so bad and a structure so feeble successfully against an assault so fierce, so overwhelming in strength, and greatly strengthened since Zulus assailed it. It has been abandoned for Fort Melville. The house is roofless, the grain sacks are being removed, and there remains little to tell of the glorious defence save the trim little graveyard behind, wherein, fenced, planted, and kept green by surviving comrades, lie the heroes who perished in the conflict. A neat hewn monument in the centre commemorates their names, and stones are laid in the form of a cross on the sods that cover their graves.
Bengough’s Natives, marching through Landsman’s Drift over night, were camped out in the vicinity, and had sent spies across the Buffalo river towards Isandhlwana. These returned at night with reports that two Zulu bodies, each about 200 strong, were in the kraals near the scene of the massacre, but somewhat beyond, engaged, apparent in gathering the ripening crops for conveyance to the interior. General Marshall was naturally anxious to strike these heavily, but so nimble in escape are the Zulus, and so difficult to surprise, that it was quite a chance whether his enterprise would have any success. He could, however, but try, and after consultation with Colonel Lowe, Captain Shepstone, Colonel Glyn, Major Bengough, and other who made themselves acquainted with the country, he devised a scheme of procedure for the morrow. The road from Rorke’s Drift to Isandhlwana extends due east. About three miles on the road the Bashee River Opens up in a north-east direction, a precipitous hill intervening between it and the opener country about Isandhlwana, This hill is an outlying spur of Ingnoti mountain range lying further into the interior in the same direction, but it is divided from the latter near the head of the Bashee Valley by a narrow gap, through what lies what was considered a probable line of escape for the Zulu fugitives from a hostile force approaching by the direct road on Isandhlwana. Colonel Drury Lowe accordingly was ordered to leave his bivouac at 4 a.m., with one wing of the Lancers and one wing of the Dragoons, to cross the river, press up the Bashee Valley, and swing round into this dap, which he was to reach soon after daylight, and hold until communication should reach him from the main column. This latte, consisting of the Lancers, one wing of the Dragoons, Harness’ two guns, Bengough’s natives, five companies of the second 24th , from Fort Melville, with a small detachment of Natal Volunteers, was to start an hour later, and follow the direct road made in January by Lord Chelmsford. It leads to Isandhlwana. The British infantry was to constitute a reserve, halting halfway, Colonel Glyn considering it would be overtasked by the march to Isandhlwana and back in one day. Isandhlwana is distant from Rorke’s Drift about eleven miles. Bengough’s natives were to ascend the precipitous hill already mentioned, clear it, and constitute a link between the lower force and the main column, whose metier should be to head with all expedition direct by road on Isandhlwana. If the Zulus were caught in the toils of this tactique so much the better. In any event the visit was to be paid to the scene of the ill-fated conflict, from which all the previous expeditions, injudiciously made in scanty strength, had been somewhat ignominiously chased by the Zulus. It had been determined to remove, if possible, a number of the waggons standing abandoned at Isandhlwana, for which purpose the main body was accompanied by large reams of Army Service horses and mules.
This morning in the midst of bitter cold and darkness Lowe led his cavalry men out of the bivouac, and groped his way down to the rugged ford across the Buffalo River. The main column followed in equal darkness, day only beginning when the force having crossed, the squadron began to form line on the slope beyond. Col. Alexander’s wing offered to go onward and led the way, but their front again was covered by the ubiquitous native scouts, mounted on their rats of ponies. As we crossed the Bashee Valley near its lower point, we saw Lowe’s column pressing on in extended order, already several miles up the valley on its turning movement. At the crossing of the Bashee Bengough’s natives, who had been following the cavalry in the main column, went to the left, confronting the precipitous hill, and ascended it with great resolution and surprising agility under their gallant and enterprising leader. The 2nd-4th formed up in the valley in support. At the top of the ascent beyond the Bashee, which the Dragoon Guards crowned in dashing style, we saw on our left front, rising above the surrounding country, the steep isolated, and almost inaccessible hill, or rather crag, of Isandhlwana, the contour of its rugged crest strangely resembling a side view of a couchant lion. On the lower neck of the high ground on its right were clearly visible against the sky line the abandoned waggons of the destroyed column. No Zulus were seen. Flanking parties covered the hills on either side of the track, along which the head of the column pressed at a trot, with a small detachment of Natal Carbineers in front of the Dragoon Guards. Now we were down in the last dip, had crossed the rocky bed of the little stream, and were cantering up the slope that stretched up to the crest on which were the waggons. Already tokens of the combat and bootless flight were apparent. The line of retreat towards Fugitives’ Drift, along which through a clink [chink?] in the Zulu environment our unfortunate comrades who thus far survived tried to escape, lay athwart a rocky slope to our right front, with a precipitous ravine at its base. In this ravine dead men lay thick – mere bones, with toughened, discoloured skin like leather covering them and clinging tight to them, the flesh all wasted away. Some were almost wholly dismembered, heaps of clammy yellow bones. I forbear to describe the faces with their blackened features and beards blanched by rain and sun. Every man had been disembowelled. Some were scalped, and other subjected to yet ghastlier mutilations. The clothes had lasted better than the poor bodies they covered, and helped to keep the skeletons together. All the way up the slope I traced, by the ghastly token of dead men, the fitful line of flight. Most of the men hereabouts were infantry of the 24th. It was like a long string with knots in it, the string formed by single corpses, the knots of clusters of dead, where, as it seemed, little groups might have gathered to make a hopeless, gallant stand, and die. I came upon a gully with a gun limber jammed on its edge, and the horses, their hides scored with assegai stabs, hanging in their harness, and around lay the corpses of soldiers, poor helpless wretches, dragged out of an intercepted vehicle, and done to death without a chance for life.
Still following the trail of bodies through the long rank grass and among stores, I approached the crest. Here the slaughtered ones lay very think, so that the string became a broad belt. Many hereabouts wore the uniform of the Natal Police. On the bare ground on the crest itself, among the waggons, the dead were less thick, but on the slope beyond, on which from the crest we looked down, the scene was the saddest and more full of weird desolation than any I had yet gazed upon. There was none of the stark, blood-curdling horror of a recent battlefield; no pool of yet wet blood; no raw gaping wounds; no torn red flesh that seems yet quivering. Nothing of all that makes the scene of yesterday’s battle so rampantly ghastly shocked the senses. A strange dead calm reigned in this solitude of nature; grain had grown luxuriantly round the waggons, sprouting from the seed that dropped from the loads, falling in soil fertilised by the life-blood of gallant men. So long in most places had grown the grass that it mercifully shrouded the dead, whom four long months to-morrow we have left unburied.
As one strayed aimlessly about one stumbled in the grass over skeletons that rattled to the touch. Here lay a corpse with a bayonet jammed into the mouth up to the socket, transfixing the head and mouth a foot into the ground. There lay a form that seemed cosily curled in calm sleep, turned almost on its face, but seven assegais stabs have pierced the back. Most, however, lay flat on the back, with the arms stretched widely out and hands clenched. I noticed one dead man under a wagon, with his head on a saddle for a pillow, and a tarpaulin drawn over him, as if he had gone to sleep, and died so. In a patch of long grass near the right flank of the camp, lay Durnford’s body, the long moustache still clinging to the withered skin of the face. Captain Shepstone recognised him at once, and identified him yet further by rings on the finger and a knife with the name on it in the pocket, which relics were brought away. Durnford had died hard – a central figure of a knot of brave men who had fought it out around their chief to the bitter end. A stalwart Zulu, covered by his shield, lay at the colonel’s feet. Around him, almost in a ring, lay about a dozen dead men, half being Natal carbineers, riddled by assegai stabs. These gallant fellows were easily identified by their comrades who accompanied the column. Poor Lieutenant Scott was hardly at all decayed. Clearly they had rallied round Durnford in a last despairing attempt to cover the flank of the camp, and had stood fast from choice, when they might have essayed to fly for their horses. Close beside the dead at the picquet line a gully traverses the ground in front of the camp. About 400 paces beyond this was the ground of the battle before the troops broke from their formation, and on both sides of this gulley the dead lie thickly. In one place nearly 50 of the 24th lie almost touching, as if they had fallen in rallying square. The line of straggling rush-back to camp is clearly marked by the skeletons all along the front. Durnford’s body was wrapped in a tarpaulin and buried under a heap of stones. The Natal Carbineers buried their dead comrades roughly. The gunners did the same by theirs. Efforts were made at least to conceal all the bodies of the men who had not belonged to the 24th Regiment. These were left untouched by special orders from General Newdigate. General Marshall had nourished a natural and seemly wish to give interment to all our dead who so long have lain bleaching at Isandhlwana, but it appears that the 24th wishes to perform this office themselves, thinking it right that both battalions should be represented, and that the ceremony should be postponed till the end of the campaign. In vain Marshall offered to convey a burial party of the regiments with tools from Rorke’s Drift in wagons. One has some sympathy with the claim of the regiment to bury its own dead, but why postpone the interment till only a few loose bones can be gathered? As the matter stands, the Zulus, who have carefully buried their own dead, who do not appear to have been very numerous, will come back tomorrow to find that we visited the place, not to bury our dead but to remove a batch of wagons.
Wandering about the desolate camp, amid the sour odour of stale death, was sickening. I chanced upon many sad relics – letters from home, photographs, journals, blood-stained books, packs of cards. Lord Chelmsford’s copying book, containing an impression of his correspondence with the Horse Guards, was found in one of his portmanteaus, and identified, in a kraal two miles off. Colonel Harness was busily engaged collecting his own belongings. Colonel Glyn found a letter from himself to Lieutenant Melvill, dated the day before the fight. The ground was strewn with brushes, toilet bags, pickle bottles, and unbroken tins of preserved meats and milk. Forges and bellows remained standing ready for the re-commencement of work. The waggons in every case had been emptied and the contents rifled. Bran lay spilt in heaps. Scarcely any arms were found, and no ammunition. There were a few stray bayonets and assegais, rusted with blood. No firearms.
All this time teams of horses were being hitched somehow to the soundest of the waggons till about 40 fit to travel had been collected on the crest. Scouting parties had been firing the Zulu kraals around, which were blazing brilliantly. A report came in that some of these had been occupied the previous night, and had been hurriedly abandoned, the shields and assegais being left behind. Smouldering ashes were found in one, but not a single Zulu was visible; not even the old women. All had cleared off, and Lowe’s detachment joined from the turning movement, without having fired a shot or struck a blow. By twelve noon the recovered waggons had started under escort for Rorke’s Drift, and soon after the return march commenced and was finished without incident.
I shall offer a few comments on the Isandhlwana position. Had the world been searched for a position offering the easiest facilities for being surprised, none could have been well found to surpass it. The position seems to offer a premium on disaster, and askes to be attacked. In the rear laagered waggons would have discounted its defects; but the camp was more defenceless that an English village. Systematic scouting could alone have justified such a position, and this too clearly cannot have been carried out. I much wish we had remained on the ground long enough to remove every evidence of the combat, bring back or destroy all the waggons, and construct a redoubt in the neighbourhood to be held permanently by a strong detachment of infantry. The moral effect of this would, I think have been great, and I should have been pleased had a Cavalry Brigade carried out a more extended operation, and at least have chevied the Zulus out of the Umquoto Mountain, but Marshall was under engagement with Newdigate to risk little and to join him early in anticipation of a speedy advance. There is some hope of the commencement of this on Saturday next. Possibly simultaneous advances may be made from Conference Hill and from Landsman’s Drift direct, the latter heading north-east, passing to the north of the Umquoto range. Marshall’s brigade joins Newdigate at Landsman’s Drift to-morrow, all well.
©Alun Stevens 2023