Perils in the Transvaal and Zululand
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“Well, we had better start now, and lose no time,” said Rivers. “Matamo, you have got the prisoner safe, I see. Why, I declare it is Van Ryk! a good job too!”
“Up and bestir yourself, Redgy!” cried George, entering the tent, which Margetts shared with Wilhelm Baylen, a few days afterwards. “Cetewayo’s time was up last night, and he has made no sign. The order to march has been given, and every one is already on the move. The mounted volunteers are to cross first, and our horses must be taken down to the Drift at once.”
“I am sorry to say Wilhelm and I are to be left behind,” said Margetts. “It’s an awful nuisance, but there’s no help for it.”
“Left behind!” repeated George. “Why, what is that for?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure; but last night, after you had left, there came an order that half a dozen of us would be required to stay on service here. Green didn’t know how to settle it to any one’s satisfaction, and it was determined at last to ballot for it. You are always in luck, George, and so are Ernest and Hardy, and the Dutchman Moritz. But Wilhelm and myself, and Vander Heyden – ”
“Vander Heyden, eh?” interrupted George. “Has he got to stay behind? How did he take that?”
“Rather worse than we did,” answered Margetts. “And we took it bad enough. Here we shall have to kick our heels, while you are having all the fun. By the way, what is to be done with Van Ryk? His trial took place yesterday, but I haven’t heard the result.”
“He is to be hanged,” said George. “Not only you and I, but Vander Heyden and Moritz also swore positively to him. You’ll have the pleasure of being his executioners after we are gone.”
“I am not sure of that,” said Redgy. “They allow a fellow three weeks now, – at least I suppose so, – and I should think you would have chawed up Cetewayo before three weeks are past.”
“Hardly that,” said George, “though I daresay it won’t be very long. Well, I’m sorry for you, Redgy, but I can’t stop here. You had better get up and see us off.”
The banks of the Buffalo presented a busy and animated scene that morning. This river and the Tugela are often, in the later months of the year, so reduced in volume that a horse may cross them without the water rising higher than his knees. But in January, February, and March they are generally in deep and rapid flood, and difficult, and, except to experienced riders, impossible to ford. The mounted soldiers did contrive to cross, and so did one battalion of the Native Contingent, at a shallow spot a quarter of a mile or so up stream, and the 24th regiment was got over on ponts. When these were in position to repel any attack that might be made by the Zulus, the rest of the force was conveyed across, and lastly the waggons.
This was the heaviest part of the work, and occupied a long time. The waggons were dragged by the oxen to the edge of the bank; then the cattle were outspanned, and driven into the river to swim across, while the waggons were dragged on to the ponts by hand.This occupied the entire day; but by nightfall they had nearly all been got across, and on the following morning the march began.
“We are to move first on Sirayo’s kraal,” said George to Hardy, as they grasped hands. “He is the fellow, you know, that made the foray into Natal and carried off the women, whom he afterwards murdered. Cetewayo wouldn’t give him up. He is in a strong position, I am told, by the Ingutu hill, about four miles from here.”
“And he probably has a pretty large force with him,” observed Hardy. “Cetewayo is said to have sent his prime troops against our column. Well, now, George, you’ll see what these fellows fight like.”
The order to move was presently given. The advance was necessarily slow through the broken and perfectly wild country on the north side of the Tugela; through which there was not so much as a path to be traced, except where the waggon of some trader had passed, and deep ruts had been left by the wheels. The ground was for the most part woodland, broken, however, continually by ravines, with deep and high fissures intersecting them – as difficult a country for a hostile force to traverse as could well be imagined.
After an hour or two of tedious advance, they came on the banks of the Bashee, a small mountain stream, running at the foot of the Ingutu mountain. Presently Sirayo’s kraal came in sight.
“There is the kraal, George,” exclaimed Hardy, “and there are a lot of Zulus ready to defend it. Now you may have a good sight of these fellows in fighting array.”
George looked up at the crags above him, and saw a number of dark-skinned warriors, whose appearance was in the highest degree striking. On their heads they wore head-dresses, apparently of leopards’ skin, surmounted by feathers, the dark plumes waving after a most picturesque fashion against the sky. Round their wrists and ankles they wore rings of ivory or burnished copper, while their waists were encircled by the tails of wild animals bound together. On their left arms they carried oval shields, large enough to protect the entire body from neck to ankle, proof against the sharp and dangerous assegay, but no protection from the rifle bullet. Their defensive weapons were rifles and assegays; the latter long spears cut from the wood of the tree which bears the same name, with an iron head and a barbed point, and which these savages hurl with great dexterity and force. As soon as the English soldiers came within hearing distance, they began to taunt and jeer them after their barbaric fashion, inquiring, “What were the white men riding there for?”
“What did they want in the land of the Zulus?”
“Were they looking out for some place to build a kraal in?”
“Would they ascend the rocks, and receive the greeting they were ready to bestow upon them?” and the like.
Presently the order to advance was given, and the men of the 24th began climbing the westward side of the hill, on which Sirayo’s kraal stood. A fire was instantly opened upon them by the Zulus, from behind the various points of vantage where they had stationed themselves, by which a dozen men or so were struck down. But in a short time, in spite of an obstinate resistance, the enemy were driven out of the kraal, and fled in confusion along the hillside, followed, as soon as they reached tolerably level ground, by the cavalry, who cut down a considerable number in the pursuit.
“So much for the first brush with these rascals!” exclaimed Hardy as he sheathed his sabre. “Certainly these are gallant fellows, very different from either the Ashantees or the Abyssinians. But, nevertheless, savages, however brave, cannot stand against disciplined troops, and this is only one more proof of it. Well, I suppose we shall go no farther to-day.”
Hardy’s words were fully verified. Not only was the march not resumed that day, but more than a week passed before the troops were again in motion. It was found to be impossible for the waggons to make their way, without constructing for them what really was a new road; or rather, a road of some kind, the old waggon tracks being all but useless. In some places the rains or the overflow of the brooks had made the ground swampy, and here the wheels would suddenly sink up to the axles, and it was only after long and severe exertion that they could be extricated, to fall into a similar pitfall, perhaps, before another ten yards of the way had been surmounted. So slow was the progress, that it was not until the 20th of January that the column resumed its route, through a bare country, hardly exhibiting a tree or shrub, and reached on the evening of the same day, the base of the lofty eminence known as Isandhlwana, or “the Lion’s Hill.”
“This is to be our camping ground, then?” said Ernest Baylen as the order to halt was given. “Well, I have often heard of Isandhlwana hill, and have seen it from a distance. It doesn’t look a bad sort of a place to pitch one’s tent in.”
“By no means,” assented George, looking round him; “and it will be a strong position too, if it is properly secured from attack. What say you, Hardy?”
Hardy cast a scrutinising glance round him, and then expressed his assent. It was indeed a striking scene. On the west side the rock rose steep and rugged, and in some places precipitous, to a considerable height, sloping downwards towards the east until it reached the water-side. Ridges of rock and grassy mounds everywhere broke this descent, so that it was rendered very difficult to traverse. On the south there was a long platform of rock covered with grass overhanging an extensive valley. The whole ground chosen for the camp was a kind of sloping plateau, overlooked by an inaccessible eminence. The scene soon became lively and picturesque, as the white bell-tents were pitched in long rows, the fires lighted, and the men, in their scarlet jackets and white helmets, gathered in groups round them, or moved hither and thither on their various errands.
The companions, now reduced to four, for four had been left at Rorke’s Drift, sat down to their meal in a somewhat dissatisfied humour. They were terribly tired of their long inaction, and it did not look as though matters were going to be any more expeditious as regarded the future. They had been more than ten days going five or six miles, and the waggon tracks, it was said, were to be no better. At this rate, when would they reach Ulundi? Not, at all events, until long after the other two columns under Evelyn Wood and Colonel Pearson had come into contact with the main force of the enemy, and probably reaped all the laurels that were to be gained. They were rejoiced when they were informed that Lord Chelmsford meant to send a force to reconnoitre on the following morning, and Ernest Baylen and Moritz were to accompany it.
“I envy you fellows,” said Hardy. “Dartnell, who is to lead you, is a smart officer, and by all accounts the Zulus are mustering pretty thick in the neighbourhood, so that you will run the chance of some sharp fighting.”
“Lonsdale is to make a reconnaissance with the Natal force in the same direction, I am told,” said Ernest; “and Lord Chelmsford also means to take a party out, they say. There will be plenty of fighting to-morrow, I expect.”
“Won’t the withdrawal of all these detachments leave us rather a small force to defend the camp with?” suggested George.
“Oh, they will fortify it, of course, the first thing to-morrow,” said Hardy. “I rather wondered that something of the kind wasn’t done last night, seeing that the enemy are in force near us. But the men were very tired, and it was too dark to do much. But no doubt they will laager the waggons and throw up breastworks as soon as it is light.”
With the break of day, Moritz and Ernest, attended by Matamo, rode off with Major Dartnell’s force. And not long afterwards the Natal troops followed, taking the road, as they afterwards learnt, to Matejan’s Kraal and Malatoko hill. But after this no further movement occurred during the day. The men busied themselves with the routine of camp duty, or were gathered in groups, talking, and smoking, and playing games. The scene was romantic and lively. In the foreground were the white bell-tents, making a forcible contrast to the scarlet of the uniforms scattered about; farther off were the waggons belonging to the different corps, each remaining in the place where it had been unpacked; and in the background was the wild uncultivated landscape – forest, and mountain ridge, and sandy ravine, and rocky boulder, mingled together in picturesque disorder.
“They don’t seem inclined to fulfil your prediction,” observed George to Hardy on the following morning, as they sat upon a large stone under the shadow of the great Isandhlwana hill. “No order seems to have been given for fortifying the camp. Look, there’s Colonel Pulleine, who is now in command, and has been so since Lord Chelmsford and Colonel Glyn left. He is reading some letters, or papers of some kind. He does not seem to have an idea that the camp wants fortifying.”
“He ought to know best,” said Hardy, “and for the matter of that, I suppose he must have had the general’s orders about it. And he, and we also, have nothing to do but to obey. All I can say is, that if the camp were to be attacked by any large force, as things now are, I don’t see how it could be defended. What is there to stop the Zulus? The men might, of course, form into a square, if they had time to do it, with the ammunition in the middle; and as long as powder and shot lasted, I don’t suppose the Zulus could break in. But look at them, scattered up and down and everywhere. Suppose there came a sudden rush of these black fellows from under cover, what time would the men have to form and collect the ammunition? The niggers might pour in by hundreds and by thousands, and cut our fellows up into small bodies, which might be destroyed in detail.”
“It looks so, certainly,” said George; “but our officers are men well used to campaigning, and, what is more, to campaigns with the natives. They can’t have overlooked this, unless they knew that there was no risk.”
“Well, all I can say is, no commanding officer under whom I have served before ever left a camp undefended, as this is,” rejoined Hardy.
“Here comes Colonel Durnford,” said George, as a fine soldierly-looking man rode up, attended by a force of mounted Basutos. “I knew he was expected about this time. He is senior to Colonel Pulleine; I daresay he will order the camp to be fortified. I suppose it would not be a very long job, would it?”
“No, not to put it into such a state as would be sufficient to repel an attack of these Zulus,” assented Hardy. “Look at those waggons yonder. The oxen are already inspanned. If they were simply drawn together in a circle, the infantry and the ammunition collected and placed inside, the Zulus couldn’t force their way in against one-half of the numbers that we have here. No, not if Cetewayo sent his whole army. Of course they might pillage the rest of the camp, and drive off the oxen. But they couldn’t get inside, – not in a week, – and they would probably lose thousands in making the attempt. Look at those two guns there, too! If they were drawn in front of the waggons, they would shoot down any attacking force – whole heaps of men at every discharge. And they couldn’t be taken under the fire of the laager. See there, Colonel Dumford is giving some orders. I hope he sees the danger, and is going to take some precautions against it. Let us move up nearer.”
On approaching the spot, however, they found the colonel’s thoughts were otherwise occupied. News had just come in that the Zulus were retreating in all directions, and would escape unhurt if they were not pursued. The colonel therefore was on the point of going after them, accompanied by his mounted Basutos and the rocket battery which he had brought with him, leaving the camp once more under Colonel Pulleine’s command.
“I don’t like it,” said Hardy when this was reported to him. “I don’t see what there has been to make these Zulus retreat. It is certain that they are in great force, and they can hardly be said to have been attacked. I hope this retreat is not a mere feint to draw more men out of the camp. I suppose, however, Lord Chelmsford must be returning to it, and Colonel Durnford knows that he is close at hand.”
As he spoke, Colonel Durnford and his Basutos went past at a rapid pace, the rocket battery, under Captain Russell, following.
For some time after his departure there was no further movement in the camp. But presently the idea spread, and gained ground, that an attack from a large force of the enemy was to be looked for. The six companies of the 24th were drawn up – three of them in extended order on the left front, where the principal attack might be looked for, two more on the side where the waggons were posted, while one company (that of Captain Younghusband) was held in reserve. Close to the companies the artillery was stationed, and a little farther off a detachment of the Native Contingent.
About one o’clock heavy firing all round announced the approach of the struggle, and presently the Basutos, who had encountered an overwhelming force of the enemy, were seen falling back on all sides, pursued by large bodies of Zulus, who came rolling like a sable wave over the crest of the opposite hill. As soon as they came in sight, the artillery opened upon them, mowing them down with terrible havoc. But they continued to advance, hesitating now and then when the fire from the guns came among them, then rushing on more resolutely than ever. Presently they came near enough for the fire of the 24th to open, and this for the time checked their advance. Desperate as the courage of the blacks was, they could not face the storm of lead thus showered upon them.
“They won’t stand this very long, Rivers,” said Hardy, as they watched the battle from the flank, on which the volunteers were stationed. “They have wonderful pluck, certainly; but, unless the ammunition fails, it is impossible they can approach nearer. Even now I see signs of wavering among them. We shall soon be at their heels, I expect. Merciful Heaven!” he exclaimed a moment afterwards in an altered voice, as, chancing to turn round, he caught sight of some object behind him. “The Zulus have got into our rear! It is all over with us!”
Rivers glanced round, and a thrill of dismay shot through him, as he beheld the head of a Zulu column making its way round the precipitous hill in the rear of the camp, and pouring on in large and ever-increasing volumes to attack the English from behind. At the same moment the assailing force in front caught sight of their countrymen, and rushed forward with redoubled fury. Struck with terror, the native contingent broke its ranks and fled, leaving a wide gap in the fighting line, through which the black warriors burst like a raging torrent, and the whole camp in a moment became a scene of wild confusion. The various groups of white soldiers were cut off from their ammunition and from one another, presenting the appearance of an island here and there, encompassed by the overwhelming flood of the enemy. A fierce rush carried the guns, which had hitherto inflicted such deadly loss on their host. A desperate attempt was made by those in charge of them to force their way through the enemy. But the gunners were assegayed on the limbers, and the drivers in their seats. One gun was upset, the other was dragged off by the wounded horses. All was confusion, distraction, despair.
“Ride for it, George!” shouted Hardy. “The only hope is to reach Lord Chelmsford, if he is anywhere near at hand, as I hope he is, and bring him to the rescue. Some of our fellows may hold out long enough for him to come up. Ay, that is right!” he exclaimed, turning on his saddle as they galloped off; “there is Captain Younghusband retiring against the steep side of the hill. He, at all events, will hold out a long time there. All depends on how near Lord Chelmsford may be.”
Urging their horses to the utmost speed, they broke their way through some scattered groups of combatants, and had got clear of the camp among some bushes, when they came upon two horsemen riding, at the top of their speed, in the opposite direction. George recognised them as Ernest Baylen and Matamo.
“Stop, Ernest!” he shouted; “do not make for the camp. The Zulus have broken in there. Where are our fellows? Where is Lord Chelmsford?”
Baylen reined in his horse. “Broken into the camp!” he exclaimed; “the Zulus! Then all is lost! Dartnell’s men are dispersed or killed. Moritz has been assegayed. I was riding to bring help.”
“Where is Lord Chelmsford?” interposed Hardy. “Is he anywhere near at hand?”
“No, miles off, I believe, but I can’t say where.”
“Then there is nothing for it but to make for Rorke’s Drift. We may warn them in time to prepare for attack.”
He was just turning his horse when half a dozen Zulus came rushing up, hurling their assegays as they advanced. One of these grazed George’s cheek. Another pierced Ernest in the chest, who fell on the instant; while a third mortally wounded Matamo’s horse. The Bechuana leaped from his saddle, and was instantly struck down by a blow from a club. George cut down the man whose assegay had narrowly missed him, and Hardy shot two more with his revolver. The others drew back for the moment; and the two Englishmen, taking advantage of their hesitation, galloped off.
“To the left, to the left!” shouted Hardy; “make for the thicket there. I know a path through it that runs down to the Buffalo. The pursuit is, fortunately, in another direction.”
In a few minutes they reached the cover of the trees, followed only by the three or four Zulus from whom they had just escaped.
Once inside the wood they were tolerably secure. Elated by the signal success they had obtained, the news of which spread like wildfire in all directions, the Zulus were hurrying to witness the overthrow and slaughter of the white men, and get their share of the spoil, and the fugitives did not encounter a single enemy, while their pursuers were a long way in the rear. Hurrying along a path, which Hardy had often traversed when a resident of the country, in half an hour’s time they found themselves on the banks of the Buffalo, at a part which was entirely out of sight of either friends or enemies.
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