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A fictional story of Col. Durnford on 22nd. January 1879 by Dawn Grant.
Zululand, 22 January 1879
As Colonel Anthony Durnford rode into the camp at Isandlwana, he knew that redemption was within his grasp. He had encountered Lieutenant Chard on the road who had breathlessly told him of Zulus seen on the ridge to the left of the camp and shots had been fired. Chard had feared for his safety and that the Zulus would cut him off from the road to Rorkes Drift so Durnford had let him ride on.
The news excited him. This was his chance. The stigma of Bushman’s River Pass was to be wiped clear.
With a shout to his men behind him, Durnford spurred his horse forward. The slow wagons could catch up in their own time.
The words of the General’s letter had rankled him over the last few days. The phrase “it will be my unpleasant duty to remove you from your command,” thundered in his head as the horse’s hooves thudded over the rough ground. Did the General not realize that he was the most experienced and knowledgeable man in the whole of the colony? The intelligence had been good, he had been acting under his orders and yet he had been stymied as if he were a mere lieutenant.
Now he was in Zululand after skimming the border for days, the enemy had been spotted, and the General was miles away to the east of the camp. It was Durnford’s turn to show him what a man of his calibre could do when left to make his own decisions.
Men scattered as he galloped into the saddle between two koppies, Isandlwana to his left and Mabhomklazi on his right, and the Isandlwana plain opened up before him, clear, as far as he could see, of any enemy. He glanced to the left. Soldiers in their red tunics were on the makeshift parade ground in front of the camp. They were relaxed, chatting and smoking while the officers stood around waiting for further orders. Up on the Nqutu Plateau to the north there was no movement. It was all over.
He found Colonel Pulleine not in the column headquarters tent, as he would have expected of the commander of the camp, but in his own tent within the encampment of the 1st battalion of the 24th regiment.
Durnford swung from his saddle and approached the colonel. They were of similar age and yet Durnford knew that Pulleine had little African campaign experience.
“I am sorry that you have come,” Pulleine said as he approached. “For you are my superior and, of course, I must hand over command of the camp to you.”
Durnford could not tell if there was a smirk hidden in the wry smile.
“I’m not going to interfere,” he replied. “I shall not be remaining in camp.”
The man seemed taken aback, as did his adjutant, Lieutenant Melvill, beside him. Durnford didn’t like Melvill, too young and smart by half.
“Well then, I shall brief you anyway,” Pulleine said and proceeded to detail the strength of the men in camp, the movements of the enemy seen so far and his general orders, which did not seem to amount to much. Durnford listened with half an ear while scouring the plain and the ridge to the north for any sign of movement. Apart from the vedettes and picquets, there was nothing.
“Blast,” he said out loud.
Pulleine stopped in mid-sentence. “I’m sorry?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry, Colonel, please carry on.”
But Durnford didn’t listen as the man continued. His eyes flicked over the ridge to the left, where the attack had been averted and which was now showing no sign of any Zulus. Then he swept his eyes over the plain, which stretched into the middle distance where the hills above the Mangeni stream broke the distant horizon. That’s where the General had gone with half the force. He realized that Pulleine had finished.
“Thank you, Colonel,” he snapped and turned to address his own officers. “The enemy has been sighted. The men can dismount and rest, but they are not to off-saddle.”
As the men left, Durnford’s attention was then drawn to the sound of the rocket battery coming into camp over the saddle. He expected to see the wagons follow but instead Captain Stafford and E Company followed the rocket battery in. He called Lieutenant Vause over.
“Find out where the ammunition wagons are, Lieutenant, and escort them in. They have been reports of enemy activity to the north.”
He called to Captain Stafford, “You, sir, can accompany Lieutenant Vause, and make sure you come back with the wagons this time.”
As the troops left, he tapped his side irritably with his good arm. “My God,” he muttered to himself. “They all think they’re on a bloody picnic.”
He marched over to Pulleine and said, “With compliments, Colonel, but is it necessary for the men to remain at stand-to? Perhaps they could be dismissed but keep their equipment on and their weapons close at hand.”
Pulleine nodded and passed the order to his adjutant.
“Will you join me for an early lunch?” Pulleine enquired when the orders had been given.
Lunch? He’d missed breakfast that morning. It was no use engaging with the enemy on an empty stomach. He refused the chair offered to him in the mess tent but stood and looked out to the east. He ate quickly, his tin plate balanced on his out-stretched hand.
He walked back to the 1st/24th headquarters with Pulleine to find a lieutenant waiting for them.
“Sir,” he began, looking at Pulleine.
“Give your report to Colonel Durnford, Mr Higginson.”
The man seemed surprised but turned to Durnford and delivered his report: there were some 600 Zulus moving around on the plateau to the north-east.
“Are you sure of their numbers?” Durnford asked.
“They were retiring away from us, sir, and it was hard to count them all in amongst the bushes but we estimated 600”
“And in which direction where they headed?”
“They fanned out, sir and didn’t seem to be going in any one direction.”
Durnford tapped his hand against his thigh. The man’s answers were vague. The enemy could be anywhere. He looked out to the east again. What if this group were moving around the plateau to the north and heading east towards the General’s forces? He turned to the lieutenant.
“Take a party of men to the top of Isandlwana Hill. You should have a clear view from there. Send me a report of what you see.”
The man saluted and ran off.
Durnford turned to Captain Barton behind him.
“Captain, please scout the area behind the northern escarpment with the mounted men of Lieutenants Raw and Roberts. We need to know where this enemy is and in what direction he is heading.”
He couldn’t settle as the men disappeared to the north. He had to know where his destiny lay, to the east or to the north? He paced up and down outside the headquarters tents as he waited, his good hand tapping his thigh, his bad hand tucked into the jacket. It ached at times, like now, reminding him of that dreadful mission in Bushman’s River Pass. The orders not to be the first to shoot had crippled him then. How was he to bring Langalibalele of the Hlubi to justice if he was not to use force? The whole expedition was a farce. The wrong directions leading them to the wrong pass and the fall that had dislocated his shoulder, damaging it beyond repair. Like the good soldier that he was, he had carried on, biting back the groans of pain. Then the final confrontation, the confusion, the shots fired and the frantic escape, his beloved friend Elijah Kambula left behind in the fracas, dead. And he, as the man in charge, had been blamed for the whole thing. Only darling Frances understood, her words calming him when the injustice of it stabbed at his pride. She was weak from her sickness and yet she was strong for him. How proud she would be to see him now, ordering these spineless men against an enemy they knew so little about.
He turned as someone approached: a messenger from Higginson.
“Yes, man,” he said.
The man’s black hand slapped his black face as he saluted. Some of the men still had to learn the proper way to show respect but Durnford ignored it as he waited for the man to give his report.
“Sir says that the Zulus are retiring everywhere.”
It was not what he wanted to hear.
“What does he mean, man?” he exclaimed. “Where are they are retiring, in what direction?”
The man merely shrugged. By now Pulleine had joined them. Durnford turned to him.
“Colonel, I am concerned that the enemy now threaten the General’s rear. It is clear they have moved along the plateau towards the east where they intend to attack the General’s party. Lieutenants Raw and Roberts can press to the east and chase the enemy from their holes. I’m going to ride out with my men to skirt the high ground and attack the enemy driven in our direction.”
Pulleine looked at him in astonishment.
“But…but the General’s orders…” he blurted out. “We are to defend the camp, take no offensive action, especially against an enemy we cannot see.”
“They have hidden themselves well, but it is obvious what their intentions are. I will take Russell’s rocket battery in support, as well as two companies of the 24th.”
“I’m not sure that I can spare the men.”
Just then Lieutenant Melvill strode in and his face was fiery.
“With compliments, Colonel,” he said to Durnford. “But I don’t think that you should be sending any men under the Colonel’s command when he has been ordered to stay and defend the camp. The General will be most alarmed that his orders have been disobeyed.”
Durnford glared at the young upstart but he could see he would not get anywhere with this man in the tent.
“Very well, I will use my own men. However,” he continued, turning to address Pulleine directly. “I intend to attack the Zulu if they should appear and I am relying on you to support me.”
With that he turned on his heel and left the tent, fuming. That man, Pulleine, was so gormless that his lieutenants fought his battles for him. The man was no leader and no Colonel either. He would show this man what a real Colonel should be doing in enemy country.
Striding from the tent, he called his officers over and quickly gave orders for the men to mount up again and ride out. As he climbed into the saddle, he glanced behind at the troops he had raised and trained himself. His black troops were decently clothed, not like the native levies who wore practically nothing with only the red rags around their heads to distinguish them from the enemy. His European officers, too, were dressed in smart uniforms. Yes, when the General had asked him to raise a volunteer army, he had raised a proper army.
As they rode out, Sergeant Simeon Kambula drew up alongside him.
“We go to fight the Zulus, sir?” he asked.
Durnford straightened himself in the saddle and proclaimed, “Yes, I will not wait in camp like an impala waiting for the lion. No, we will flush that lion out and he will find us more than a match.”
Simeon dipped his head and dropped back so that he was amongst his own men. Durnford smiled. Simoen at least had remained loyal to him, even though his father had died while under his command.
Durnford surveyed the plain now clear of all signs of the Zulu enemy. The grass was long and luxuriant, bolstered by the summer rains. Frances would love to see this. Curious how she bore the same name as his wife, as if he had married the wrong woman, which he had, he realized some years ago, and divorce was not possible if he was to retain the Queen’s commission. But he and Frances were happy enough. They could not consummate their relationship anyway, not with her ill health.
The sun was hot, nearing its zenith and scarcely a breath of air. He didn’t mind. He was used to the sweltering heat of Ceylon.
A gunshot to his left terminated his musings. It came from the direction of the plateau. Lieutenants Raw and Roberts were doing their job of driving the enemy out before them. He would engage the enemy behind the back of the conical hill in front of him. As he rounded it, two mounted men galloped towards him. They barely raised their hands in salute as they approached.
“Sir,” one of them shouted. “Lieutenant Scott advises that you turn back to the camp for the enemy is advancing in force and you are in danger of being surrounded.”
“Surrounded! I think not. We will cut our way through them.” He looked behind him. “Lieutenant Davies! Where is the rocket battery?”
“It’s fallen behind, sir,” Lieutenant Davies replied.
Durnford turned to the two mounted men, “Ride back to Lieutenant Scott and tell him to move his men down the valley to marry up with mine. We will stop this advance.”
The men stared at him with mouths open. One of them swallowed and spoke with a trembling voice, “I’m afraid Lieutenant Scott will not come, sir. He has been ordered by Colonel Pulleine to remain at his post and not to leave under any circumstances.”
Durnford could feel himself begin to quiver with rage.
“I am Colonel Pulleine’s superior and you will please tell Lieutenant Scott to do as I tell him or face a court martial.”
The two men looked at each other and Durnford thought he would have them court-martialed too but then there was a shout and from behind the conical hill came his scouts, closely followed by a mass of black warriors packed so tightly together that it looked like a big black wave. From the wisps of grey smoke arising from amongst them, they were firing weapons but he knew that there was no chance of being hit from that distance. He glanced behind him.
“Back to that donga, men,” he ordered. “We’ll hold them off from there.”
Like the well-trained men that they were, his men fell back to the donga behind them and jumped down from their saddles to line the eastern wall with their rifles raised against the on-coming black mass.
“Steady,” he called as his horse stumbled down the side of the donga to join them. He looked back over his shoulder - enemy at 400 yards. “Fire!”
The effect of volley rippled through the front line of Zulus and they fell, some dead, some wounded, but the men behind them quickly took their places and came on. Durnford realized his troops were too thinly spread to stymie the Zulu attack for any measure of time.
“Remount” he shouted. “Fall back.”
Instantly the men scrambled back into the saddles and rode off, ejecting the spent rounds from their carbines. Durnford felt a surge of pride as he watched the men perform as they had been trained. He wheeled around when he judged the distance was right and without being ordered to, Lieutenants Henderson and Davies swung into line on either side of him, quickly ordering the men under their command to dismount and face the enemy again. As they did so, Durnford rode behind them and gave them further orders. They were to retreat by alternate troops and thereby give them the room they needed to get back to camp and reinforcements.
The horses whinnied and side-stepped when the rifles went off but the men held firm and before the smoke had cleared they were re-mounting and galloping off, Durnford in the lead. A little further on, at his command, and working in groups of four, the men dismounted, threw the reins to the fourth man while grabbing at the rounds in the bandoliers.
By now they had worked their way around the back of the conical hill and could see the camp plainly in the distance. All appeared normal. Had no one seen his encounter with the Zulu? Was Pulleine asleep? And where was the damn rocket battery? He spotted a figure in the distance and, seeing that his lieutenants were maintaining their firing, galloped over to the lone figure.
“You, sir,” he shouted as he drew near. “Where is the rocket battery?”
The man seemed startled, even afraid.
“S..s…sir, I’m afraid the rocket battery has been overrun and the major has fallen.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, man, go back and fetch the major. I need the rocket battery now!”
“It is sheer madness, sir, for the enemy has just about surrounded us.”
Durnford looked around and saw Lieutenant Davies wheel his troops to the right to meet an advance of Zulu. Good God, he leaves them for five seconds and already the defence was disintegrating. He wheeled his horse around and galloped off, leaving the man to make his own way back to the camp. It would be his punishment for impertinence. His own troops were attempting to rescue what was left of the rocket battery, he realized as he drew nearer and, as he approached, he recognized Captain Nourse and headed straight for him.
“Captain,” he shouted. “Please tell me where I can find the rocket battery.”
The man looked frightened and his reply was breathless.
“Gone, I’m afraid, sir.”
“Gone? How can you mean gone?”
“We were overrun, sir. Only got off one shot. The major was killed, sir.”
“Damnation,” he muttered. “I’ll not survive the disgrace.”
“Sorry, sir?” Nourse enquired.
“Forget it, man, forget it.”
There was the sound of firing over his left shoulder. He glanced back. The plateau to the north was moving. He blinked and looked again. It wasn’t the earth that was moving but black bodies, pouring over the edge of the heights at the notch. Durnford realized that this was the main Zulu army. What he had encountered was just the left horn of the pincer movement. What was on the plateau was the chest, or the main block of the Zulu army. Fearfully he glanced back to the camp. If the left horn was in front of him, and the chest to his side then the right horn had to be coming around the back of Isandlwana. If not stopped then the whole camp would be trapped in the middle of the pincer movement, surrounded on all sides. And if he did not act swiftly, his troops would be cut off from the camp by the mass of Zulu coming down the notch.
The continued thump of rifle shots around him reminded him that his men were still engaged. The Zulus were making good use of the cover afforded by the tall grasses. Looking back at the camp, he could see that some defence was being made as lines of red-coated soldiers flared out in companies to meet the oncoming onslaught and from the boom of the guns, it was obvious that Pulleine had arranged his artillery in the centre of the lines of defence.
Durnford looked behind him. The Nyogane Donga was a few hundred yards away. If they reached it, they could make a decent stand and hold back the left horn long enough for the regiments to consolidate their defence. And they would have a clear line of fire.
Quickly he passed along his orders and again his men acted as they had been trained. Swiftly they mounted for the dash back towards the camp. At the donga, they slipped and slid before throwing themselves from their horses and lining the walls of the donga. Durnford dismounted his own horse and strode behind them, calling on them to conserve their fire. He was beginning to become alarmed at the sight of the empty sockets in bandoliers. Ammunition was running out.
“Davies” he shouted. “Gallop back to camp and get more ammunition.”
“Yes, sir,” the man replied and, with a small contingent of men, went in search of the ammunition wagons, which should have made the camp by now.
Back at the camp, he could see the lines of red-jacketed soldiers were drawing out to hold back the black tide sweeping down from the plateau and onto the plain. He quickly realized that if he did not hold this part of the defence on the right of the camp, the left horn would swing around and cut in behind the thin red line.
Durnford wondered if Pulleine was aware of this threat to his flank. He received confirmation when one of the guns turned and began to fire artillery shells over the heads of his men in the donga into the mass of Zulu he was attempting to hold back.
“Fire steady, lads,” he shouted as he ranged behind his men. “We are to hold the line here. We must stand fast to give our lads a chance to repel the enemy.”
The intense firepower of his men were cutting down the Zulu and the onslaught had been held back, in fact, the Zulus had taken cover. Whenever one hurtled forward, he was cut down by rifle fire. Durnford smiled. This was it; this was his moment when he could show how well-ordered troops could defeat the onslaught of fierce indigenes. Durnford strode up and down the donga bed, shouting and encouraging his men until, to his chagrin, they began to shout for more ammunition. The once full bandoliers were almost empty.
Durnford looked out towards where the Zulu had gone to ground. The firing of his men slowed as they sought to conserve their ammunition. Durnford tapped his leg impatiently as he looked back to camp. Where were the men and the ammunition? If they didn’t return soon and the Zulus decided to mount a concerted attack, they couldn’t hold them back with the little ammunition left.
“Henderson,” he called, spotting the man amongst the troops. “Go and find out what has happened to Davies and bring back some ammunition.”
“Yes, sir,” the man said and quickly rode off.
Durnford caught some of his own men looking back wistfully, as though they wished they had been sent on that mission.
“Eyes front!” he shouted and was assured when the men again turned back to holding down the Zulus. He noticed one of the men struggling with an empty round jammed in his rifle. Durnford grabbed it and worked at the lever until the cartridge, a little battered, fell from the breech. He cursed the Martini Henry as he handed it back to the man, always jamming in the heat of battle. A shout to his right caught his attention as he mounted his horse. Bradstreet was pointing away to the right and as soon as he looked, Durnford knew the game was up. Somehow the Zulu had outflanked them, moving away to the right and now advancing down towards them from a rise of hills that edged the plain. The bandoliers were almost empty, the men he had sent had not returned, the enemy was advancing en masse and there was nowhere to go but back.
“Withdraw to the camp!” he bellowed as he hunkered down in the saddle. Already the sound of the advancing Zulu could be heard clearly above the sporadic firing: a noise like a swarm of bees as they chanted ‘zhi, zhi, zhi’ It was the sound they made before they charged.
“Usutu!” they roared.
Durnford led the retreat, galloping back over the ground covered with boulders and rocks and treacherous with ruts. He could see the startled look on the face of the young lieutenant who was at the very right edge of the red line but he had no time to halt and warn or assist him. The enemy was at their heels. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that his troopers were forming a rearguard. Two fell then the troopers galloped away to catch up with the rest of Durnford’s men.
As he rode towards the camp, he was met by another rider who, he saw as he got closer, was Gardner.
“Colonel,” the man called as he drew near. “Colonel Pulleine wants to know the nature of the your retreat. It has left the right flank cruelly exposed.”
He had no time to explain.
“It was too extended,” he shouted back as he rode past him and headed for the saddle between the two hills for that was where he expected to find his wagons.
“Where are the ammunition wagons?” he asked of a young volunteer standing close by. The boy appeared in a flux and couldn’t answer. Durnford moved on until he saw a red-jacketed soldier carrying ammunition in his helmet.
“Where are the ammunition wagons?” he demanded.
The man hardly stopped as he called, “towards the back of the tents.” Durnford looked around. His force of mounted men had all but disappeared amongst the tents. As he looked up the road that led out of the camp and back to Rorkes Drift, he was dismayed to see that horsemen, probably his own, were riding through and vanishing from sight.
He looked behind him, at the area he had just left and was shocked to find that the Zulu left horn, which he had so successfully held back, had now covered the ground in rapid time and had completely overrun the company past which he had galloped a few short minutes before. Even as he watched, the Zulu concentrated their attack on the next company of red-coated soldiers on the edge of the line. Some brave stands were being made but it was obvious that they would be annihilated too unless reinforcements came forward. Durnford looked about for Pulleine but he could not see the man anywhere. And, as if a great dam had been opened, the native levies ran through the tents, tearing the red headbands from their heads as they fled.
“Where the hell is Pulleine?” Durnford muttered to himself as he rode for the headquarters tent.
He met Melvill on the way, mounted with his hand on a long leather case and his face pale and sweaty.
“Where are you going?” Durnford demanded.
“The Colonel has ordered me to rescue the Queen’s colour.”
“The camp is lost?” Durnford asked.
“Yes, sir, the enemy is too great and I’m to get away with the colour.”
The man rode off in haste.
Durnford stared, confounded, after him. Behind him the noise of the battle had drawn nearer. There was no mistaking that the red line had been breached and very soon the whole camp would be engulfed. He took off after Melvill.
He was too late. The great guns thundered past him, the horses lathered in sweat as they pulled at the limbers while the men on the back held on to the bucking vehicle. The screams behind him told him the Zulus were advancing faster than he could ride and, as he neared the saddle, he realized that the right horn had swung around the back of Isandlwana and was now blocking the road to Rorkes Drift. Men were running around the camp, their eyes wide and filled with fear. The gunfire behind him was slowing, becoming infrequent, while the shouts and screams came close. In the absence of the camp’s commander, he had to take control. In front of him, some men had taken cover behind an overturned wagon. He looked around him and saw that there were still some of his men in the camp, as well as some from the battalion.
“To me!” he shouted above the din. “To me!” The men turned their heads at this unmistakable command and, relieved that someone had taken charge, ran towards him. As Durnford jumped down from his horse, he checked his revolver, all six rounds were chambered and he had some to spare. He and these men would hold this area for as long as they could and, by God, they would sell their lives dearly.
As he waited for the attack to come, peering through the smoke from the rifle shots, he grimaced. So this would be his redemption. He would stand his ground and die a hero. Frances would have no reason to be ashamed of him. And as the first Zulu appeared through the smoke, to be quickly cut down by a shot from his revolver, his only thought was, surely he could not be blamed for this?